What Every Child Should Know About America

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for June 29 and thereafter
740 words

Bloomington — Most people won’t recognize the name, John Patrick, yet there’s probably no Hoosier who’s done more to promote the principles we celebrate this Fourth of July.

Patrick retired June 30 after a distinguished 35-year career as a professor at Indiana University, where he directed the Social Studies Development Center, wrote numerous books and articles and trained hundreds of K-12 teachers about the founding principles and key documents of U.S. history.

Fortunately, Patrick becomes emeritus in title only. He will continue to travel to emerging democracies in Latin America and elsewhere to advise their leaders about constitutional issues. And he will maintain a high profile in the "We the People" civic education program, an intensive curriculum about the Constitution and Bill of Rights used in some 200 Indiana classrooms.

The program is supported by the Center for Civic Education, Indiana Department of Education, Indiana State Bar Association and Indiana Bar Foundation, which provide much of the funding for teacher training and student materials.

To no one’s surprise, Patrick spent his final week as a professor teaching a new crop of "We the People" teachers, myself included, about the core principles of the U.S. founding. His goal was to train us so thoroughly that we would be experts on the Constitution when we return to our schools this fall.

All of our students, he told us, need to know the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Federalist Papers and Bill of Rights. They should understand that the seeds of our government can be found in the English Magna Carta of 1215, the early colonial compacts and the state constitutions that preceded the U.S. Constitution and foreshadowed its main ideas.

Patrick said no student should graduate until he’s read Frederick Douglass’s "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro," and Martin Luther King’s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," both of which cite the ideas from America’s own founding documents to make the case for racial equality.

Patrick urged all of us to share the story of an American hero by the name of Charles Hamilton Houston, a little-known black lawyer who devised the strategy for challenging "separate but equal" educational facilities, yet sadly died of a heart attack a few years before the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.

"When we teach about America, we should teach about its failings as well as its achievements," he told us as he introduced a moving film about Houston’s life. "Sometimes they (the failings) seem to loom larger in the minds of our students than the achievements. Here’s a story where they come together."

Patrick wants history teachers to "teach about America in its full complexity," which doesn’t often happen. Yes, the United States was one of the world’s leading slaveholding countries, he points out. But it was also the leading abolitionist country, "which had an impact worldwide."

At the end of our week of study, I went with my fellow teachers to see Fahrenheit 9/11, the relentless two-hour attack on President Bush by political gadfly-movie producer Michael Moore.

Although Moore travels the globe bad mouthing Americans ("They are possibly the dumbest people on the planet") and the American way (Should such an ignorant people lead the world?"), his film had a paradoxical effect on me.

As I left the packed theater, I felt prouder than ever of a place which gives citizens the freedom to speak, assemble and produce insulting movies that would be censored in much of the globe, all because of the foresight of the men who wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

America isn’t perfect by any means, but Moore seems to overlook the distinctive constitutional principles that John Patrick travels the globe to share with countries seeking to replicate our freedoms.

In 1833, James Madison wrote, "It has been said that all government is an evil. It would be more proper to say that the necessity of any government is a misfortune. This necessity however exists; and the problem to be solved is, not what form of government is perfect, but which of the forms is least imperfect."

On this Fourth of July, I will celebrate the fact that American government remains the least imperfect. And that there are brilliant, passionate people like John Patrick who are educating the next generation of Americans about our great country — warts and all.

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Andrea Neal, a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and former editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star, is a columnist with Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org


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