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Liberty’s Precedents

As we near America’s July birthday, it is useful to remind ourselves that preceding that date in both calendar months and centuries is the June anniversary of the signing of England’s Magna Carta. Comparing and contrasting the Declaration of Independence, which was signed on July 4 in Philadelphia, with the Magna Carta, which was signed on June 15 in a meadow at Runnymede in the south of England, has always been a useful exercise in civic education.

At first glance, most Americans would probably think it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. While the Declaration speaks of human equality and the natural and universal rights of men, the Magna Carta is an agreement between England’s lords and a monarch, with nary a word about the broader “rights” of the everyday English subject.

And while the Declaration appeals to the “laws of nature and nature’s God,” and “self-evident truths,” to break from British rule, the Magna Carta intends to restore the traditional privileges enjoyed by the barony and Church, while acceding to the monarchy as source of law simultaneously.

In short, the Declaration is a revolutionary document in not only announcing the revolt from London but doing so on the basis of the unprecedented claim of natural rights — not divine ordinance or British customary liberties; in contrast, the Magna Carta looks back in time for the grounds of its pledges and presumes those ancient ways are the just and reasonable.

Nevertheless, the two documents are linked by the fact that they share a similar and immediate practical goal: ending (in the one case) or curtailing (in the other case) what they believed to be the arbitrary rule of a governing monarch. It’s no surprise that the colonists of North America were often quick to cite the precedent of the Magna Carta when discussing and debating their own complaints with London.


When Our Country Came of Age: An Argument for Constitution Day

In the history of man there’s never been a legal order that has provided the same level of stability, prosperity and popular legitimacy as the US Constitution.

For ten-plus years, the republic was governed by the Articles of Confederation; a document ineffective in delivering those very rights, international and domestic, that the citizens of the 13 states had gone to war with the British crown to secure. While never as exciting as the ends of government expressed in the Declaration, the Constitution has nevertheless been the stolid means for securing those ends for more than two centuries. For as problematic as we might find politics and government today, in the history of man there’s never been a legal order that has provided the same level of stability, prosperity and popular legitimacy as the US Constitution.


History in the Age of Fracture

Like so many of the disciplines making up the humanities, the field of history has for some time been experiencing a slow dissolution, a decline that may be approaching a critical juncture. Students of academic life express this decline quantitatively, citing shrinking enrollments in history courses, the disappearance of required history courses in university curricula, and the loss of tenurable faculty positions in all history-related areas.

But even more disturbing indications of history’s troubled status are harder to measure but impossible to ignore. One senses a loss of self-confidence, a fear that the study of the past may no longer be valuable or important and that history itself lacks the capacity to be a coherent and truth-seeking enterprise, producing genuine knowledge that helps us locate ourselves in the broad expanses of space and time. Some of this derives from the growing vocationalism in American higher education, flowing from a desire that a college degree should lead reliably to gainful employment. But the fear rests just as much on the belief that the road we have traveled to date offers us only a parade of negative examples of oppression, error, and obsolescence—proof positive that the past has no lessons applicable to our unprecedented age.

This loss of faith in the central importance of history pervades all of American society.


Constitutional Statesmanship: A New Project of AEI’s Program on American Citizenship

Created by AEI’s Program on American Citizenship, the Constitutional Statesmanship e-curriculum is a rich source of materials compiled to aid both teacher and student in the classroom instruction and learning of American history, government, civics, and social studies. This collection of primary source documents paired with video discussions highlights constitutional themes and challenges as experienced by key statesmen in our history. It seeks to educate both hearts and minds about American political principles, ideals, identity, and national character, and the virtues and aspirations of our civic life.

Abraham Lincoln and the Constitution is the first topic in the ongoing Constitutional Statesmanship series.


Seven Score and Ten Years Ago

In the Weekly Standard, Program director Gary Schmitt writes on the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address:

November 19 marks the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—rightly judged to be the greatest speech in America’s history. And while there have been innumerable books and articles written about the content, language, and rhetorical sophistication of Lincoln’s remarks, far less has been written about why he chose the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, some four and a half months after the battle itself, to deliver the speech he did.

Lincoln had been invited by the organizing committee for the battlefield’s consecration to give, as “Chief Executive of the nation,” “a few appropriate remarks.” But these were to follow the main attraction of the day, a speech by famed orator Edward Everett, former president of Harvard, senator, and governor of Massachusetts. With Everett expected to speak to the assembled crowd for two hours at least, Lincoln could well have chosen to follow Everett with just a few perfunctory lines, assuming what really mattered to the organizers was the president’s attendance, not what he might have to say.

But Lincoln chose a different path. Why?

Read the whole thing to find out.


Analyzing Mitch Daniels’ Critique of Howard Zinn

In an op-ed for the New York Daily News, Gabriel Schoenfeld addresses the recent controversy surrounding former governor Mitch Daniels’ criticism of Howard Zinn’s  A People’s History of the United States. Schoenfeld argues that Zinn’s work does not meet academic standards and fundamentally misconstrues American history.


Extending Civics Education, One School District at a Time

With the majority of high schoolers’ civics knowledge below proficient, one school district in Pennsylvania is looking to revamp its curriculum. Pocono Mountain School District will implement a new full-year civics requirement for its 10th grade class starting this fall, and will rely on the U.S. citizenship test as a benchmark for the curriculum.


Think you know Abraham Lincoln? Think Again

While Abraham Lincoln may be famous for the monumental Emancipation Proclamation, his moving Second Inaugural Address, or his tragic assassination, much less is known about our 16th president’s more peculiar habits. Author Rich Lowry sought to remedy this deficiency by compiling a list of lesser-known Lincoln anecdotes, and the results may surprise you.


Justice Sandra Day O’Connor discusses civics on Morning Joe

Earlier this week, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show to discuss her on-going work on civics and her newest book, Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court. As we’ve noted before, after stepping down from the Supreme Court, O’Connor founded iCivics, an online learning platform that allows students to play games that focus on the three branches of government and the rights and responsibilities of citizens.


Civics education and Common Core

The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) recently completed a study of the iCivics computer-based teaching module called Drafting Board. iCivics is an online civic education platform founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that seeks to prepare “young Americans to become knowledgeable, engaged 21st century citizens” by providing educational video games and teaching materials available at its website.


A conversation with Sandra Day O’Connor

In Sunday’s issue of Parade Magazine, David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School, has a “candid conversation” with retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Since leaving the Court, O’Connor has focused much of her attention on promoting civic education through her organization iCivics, about which she speaks with Gergen.


Lawyers and civic education

Writing in The Atlantic, Randall T. Shepard, a former Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, argues that the legal profession has an important role to play in strengthening the civic education and engagement of the general public.


To increase knowledge of civics, try teaching civics

Responding to the new study by the Educational Testing Service, “Fault Lines in Our Democracy: Civic Knowledge, Voting Behavior, and Civic Engagement in the United States” (which we covered here), the Hudson Institute’s Bruce Cole has an op-ed in the Washington Examiner that takes issue with the report’s suggested corrective measures to increase students’ civic knowledge and levels of civic engagement.


Mid-week roundup

Some recent items of note:

  • Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has created a sample civics curriculum for the Washington Post.
  • Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter school system, has an article in The Atlantic in which he uses the KIPP system as an example of what can happen when teachers and administrators are freed to try out new ways of teaching students.
  • Over at the Army’s blog, Chaplain (Maj.) Carlos C. Huerta has a moving account of dealing with PTSD upon his return home from Iraq, and he encourages other soldiers to seek help.
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Making civics sexy?

“I propose to revive civics by making it squarely about the thing people are too often afraid to talk about in schools: power, and the ways it is won and wielded in a democracy.” So says former Clinton speechwriter and creator of the Guiding Lights Weekend conference on citizenship Eric Liu.


Citizenship and civic education in the news

A round-up of citizenship and civic education happenings:

  • The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) has released a new report: “The Engaged Citizen Index: Examining the Racial and Ethnic Civic and Political Engagement of Young Adults.”
  • Need an example of bad citizenship? Slate’s Joel Warner writes about his effort to use jury-selection science to get out of jury duty.
  • Yesterday, the House Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Labor Policy held a hearing on H.R. 2268, which proposes “to amend title 5, United States Code, to provide that Washington’s Birthday be observed on February 22 [the day of his actual birth], rather than the third Monday in February, of each year.”
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