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Ignorance of our founding principles can endanger us all

March 5, 2006

Here we go again. A new survey reveals that only about one in four Americans can name at least two of the First Amendment’s five freedoms: freedom of the press, religion, speech and assembly, as well as the right to petition government for redress of grievances. But 52 percent can name two or more members of TV’s “Simpsons.” More than 20 percent of Americans actually think the First Amendment gives us the right to own and raise pets!

We shouldn’t be shocked. Americans’ — especially young Americans’ — woeful ignorance of history and civics has been documented repeatedly.

The good news is that Minnesota has made progress on this front. Today, our state has decent K-12 standards in American history and government. That’s thanks to a successful battle to dump the Profile of Learning, a costly over 10-year experiment in “hands-on” learning.

The Profile aimed to create “critical thinkers,” not knowledgeable citizens. As a result, it was notoriously short on facts and long on “process.” During the Profile’s tenure, students at some schools could satisfy history requirements by completing “performance packages” on subjects such as non-conformity in the 1960s, instead of writing papers about major figures and events in American history.

But there’s bad news on another educational front, where you’d least expect it: at American colleges and universities.

The Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE) is a Philadelphia-based organization that defends constitutional rights, including freedom of speech, due process and religious liberty, on college campuses. In 2003, FIRE commissioned twin surveys of 1,037 students and 306 administrators at more than 300 colleges nationwide, testing their knowledge of various aspects of the First Amendment.

The survey revealed a troubling cluelessness about our most fundamental freedoms.

For example, only 30 percent of students and 21 percent of administrators named freedom of religion when asked to name any First Amendment right. Only 2 percent of students and 6 percent of administrators knew that freedom of religion is the very first freedom that the First Amendment addresses. One in four students and 11 percent of administrators surveyed could not name any of the specific rights the First Amendment guarantees.

This lack of rudimentary constitutional knowledge may explain why some college administrators feel free to engage in heavy-handed — and sometimes illegal — regulation of campus religious activity. For example, according to FIRE President Greg Lukianoff, FIRE intervened at the University of North Carolina when administrators threatened to deny official recognition to the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship because it required its leaders to be Christians. At Penn State, FIRE stepped in when the Young Americans for Freedom were informed that its constitution and mission statement were “discriminatory” because they described rights as “God-given.” (America’s Declaration of Independence, by the way, says much the same thing.)

Last week, FIRE took a significant step toward guaranteeing religious freedom in our own back yard. Lukianoff reports that after months of pressure from FIRE, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire agreed to drop its policy banning student resident assistants from leading Bible studies (or Torah or Koran studies) in their dormitories. UW System President Kevin Reilly proposed repealing the ban, though the UW Board of Regents must approve.

Ignorance about America’s founding principles doesn’t just produce fodder for late-night comics. It can endanger our freedoms.

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Schools: University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire Pennsylvania State University – University Park University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Cases: University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire: Ban on RAs’ Leading Bible Studies University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Refusal to Allow Christian Clubs to Require Christian Leadership Pennsylvania State University: Charges of ‘Discrimination’ Due to Religious Language in Club Constitution