The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Rights and Responsibilities of Being an American Citizen

on April 17, 2017

Today’s post is more a series of quotes—not mine—than an essay. Reading David Fouse’s* article in the “National Review” convinced me that public education should include much more about the ways that the American government functions in order to help young people become effective citizens. To persuade readers, I will let him make his own argument, omitting only some statements that are repetitious.


David Fouse begins his essay with a quote from Thomas Jefferson that appeared in a letter he wrote in 1816, seven years after his presidency had ended. Although Jefferson’s meaning is not as instantly clear as it should be, it accurately reflects the conditions in many nations where young people get little or no education, and, to some extent also the conditions in our own country where we expect education to be more thorough. Jefferson said,“If a nation expects to be both ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Fouse goes on to cite what he believes all American citizens should know about the workings of our federal government, along with the percentages of educated people who are ignorant in those areas.  I found the numbers hard to accept, especially because Fouse does not cite their source: “Sixty percent of college graduates don’t know any of the steps necessary to ratify a constitutional amendment. Fifty percent don’t know how long the terms of representatives and senators are. Forty percent didn’t know that Congress has the power to declare war. Forty-three percent of Americans don’t know that the First Amendment gives them the right to freedom of speech, and a full third can’t identify a single right it gives them.”

From this point on I will let Fouse speak for himself without any help from me.

As shocking as the above-mentioned statistics are, they represent only the   surface of the problem. What we are facing is not merely a crisis of knowledge, a need to memorize more facts, or a lack of understanding of how to properly engage. What we are really facing is a crisis of worldview.

A government by the people, for the people, and of the people is only as wise, as just, and as free as the people themselves. Ignorance and indifference inevitably erode our freedoms and destroy our republic. It is not without cause that our national discourse in recent years has been so histrionic and hateful.

At its core, true education is more than facts and figures. It engages and enriches the soul. It rightly orients one to understand his or her place in the world, to pursue truth and beauty, and, perhaps most important, to understand why the pursuit of these things matters — not just for occupational production, but to know how to live.

Over the course of the past century, the role of education in government and the role of government in education have become increasingly muddled. Our current education system little resembles the intent of the Founders. For these men, education was a responsibility delegated to the people, not a right provided by the   government. When George Washington petitioned for the creation of a national  university, his request was denied on the grounds that education was not a power outlined in the Constitution. Our current Department of Education, with its expansive regulations and reach, would be incomprehensible and insupportable to the Framers of our Constitution.

A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

For the federal government, education is metrics: an increasingly complex set of measurable, quantifiable standards designed to prepare students for productivity (production) in the workforce. It ignores the soul and is anathema to the development of virtue, which is the lifelong process of seeking and loving truth,  and without which no human can live a genuinely satisfying life. Education is fundamentally a spiritual and moral undertaking — and as such, it is well beyond the capabilities of the federal government to teach.

Merely cramming students with facts about our government or commanding them to engage in community service will not make them the kind of virtuous citizens our republic needs. We need citizens who understand liberty and justice, who objectively pursue truth, and who will ardently champion these values in the   public square. Only a holistic form of education that takes the content and the context, the vision and the values, of our Founders into account can create such citizens and preserve their freedom in the generations to come.

I guess I knew about most of the citizen rights and responsibilities that Fouse pointed out, but I confess that I have done little to encourage others to learn and act on them. In the future I will try to emphasize good citizenship in this blog and my personal life for the benefit of our country and all its people.


*After reading this article I wanted to know what Fouse’s educational background and political and connections were. I found out only that he is partner in the Pinkston Group, a public relations company.

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