In the wake of the latest fatal school shootings, the usual flurry of scapegoating is under way. To state the obvious, however, the cause of kids shooting kids is not guns, defective security procedures, or — the latest candidate — the failure of other kids to report every angry or irrational comment of their friends as a sign of imminent massacre. If we are serious about diagnosing and fixing what ails our young people, we must look deeper, into the human soul and the care we take for its formation.
That’s what Representative Mark Green of Texas is doing with the Teach Freedom Act, which he has introduced into the Texas Legislature. The bill simply requires that annually, during the week of September 25th, study of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution will be mandatory for all students in the state of Texas. The Act will direct the State Board of Education to select a supplemental instruction book focusing on how to teach the Declaration. Is this the latest band-aid proposal covering over a deeper problem? I don’t think so — I think Rep. Green is proposing that the people of Texas begin to restore a crucial missing part of the necessary effort a free people must make to remain a decent and a just people. The link between returning the Declaration to our schools and keeping our kids from killing each other is closer than we might think.
Our most devastating national problem is a crippling debasement of the concept of freedom which we have permitted to spread like a rot in America for several decades. At the heart of a right concept of freedom — of American liberty — has always been the concept of self-government. But self-government refers not chiefly to the institutional means by which a people rules itself. Institutional self-government is but a reflection of the way in which individuals within that society discipline their own passions — their own selfishness, lust, anger, greed, frustration, jealousy, resentment — the whole range of temptations to evil that are inevitably provoked by the human condition. The prerequisite of a self-governing people is a shared concept of human conduct embracing a certain basic discipline that acknowledges the difference between right and wrong and guides everyone to implement that difference through their own choice and will.
The only way to prevent not just these horrific fringe acts of desperately angry children, but the vastly more common patterns of selfishness and indulgence that threaten to engulf our society, is to restore the right understanding of freedom in the way we raise and educate our children. Retaining that understanding is an ongoing obligation and has been present, in various forms, in every society. The question we must ask today is whether we have permitted such a decay in our moral foundations that we are now threatened by the grave consequences of social collapse. I believe that we have and that we must set about the common-sense business of restoring those foundations.
The crucial task is to successfully raise our children in a moral environment grounded in principles that respect the first and enduring truth of American life — that our rights come from God. Accordingly, the restoration of American moral character requires that our children again be formed with a sense of reverence for God’s will and God’s authority in our lives. This is obviously not something that “government” can do. It must be a common labor of the families, the churches, and the other institutions through which individuals both realize and put into practice the moral ideas that shape conscience and decent will.
Obviously, raising children whose character is formed according to the moral principles of America’s founding cannot be done without the participation of the schools. Our educational institutions must help form a better understanding of the special duty and privilege that we have in being Americans — the special duty of self-government; the special privilege of freedom. Perhaps the most important truth we can teach our children is that freedom does not mean doing whatever we feel like doing, or doing whatever we can get away with. Freedom means, rather, that we have the opportunity to make right and responsible choices in which we can then take pride.
Unfortunately, over the course of the last several decades, we have seen an increasing neglect of the study of our founding principles, and of the relevance of those principles to the life we live in America today. It is inconvenient to the pro-abortion lobby, for example, to consider whether the principle of human equality enshrined in the Declaration is relevant to their spurious defense of abortion. In fact, however, a renewed attention to our founding principles is essential if the country is to make right judgments on a host of issues.
At root, the recovery of the Declaration is necessary if we are to remember what our liberty means. We have allowed our politicians to distract us from the truth that our system is not about government. The uniqueness of the American way of life is that it is about our ability to fashion for ourselves institutions through which we can effectively decide the destiny of our families and communities. It is about our ability to respect individual rights while working together at a communal level in order to shape the present and the future of our society.
The Teach Freedom Act will require the schools of Texas to begin reintroducing students to the concept of self-government, to its meaning and relevance in the history of the country. Study of the Declaration and the Constitution forms the natural foundation of a curriculum that teaches what we must do to reshape our character, restore our personal discipline, and renew our grasp of the nature of rights and justice — all of which will be necessary to sustain not simply our external institutions of republican government, but the invisible institutions of self-government as well.
Of course, a mandated study of key particular texts in the Declaration and Constitution can only be a beginning. It is critical that we show students how our founding documents are not just relics of the past, but are living ideas that actually shape much of the way that we think today by defining our concept of rights and our idea of justice. Once students have seen that the Declaration articulates the timeless truth of justice in human affairs, their confident application of that truth to contemporary questions of justice will follow naturally.
As students mature in their understanding, they will see that the Declaration is not just an episodic statement at the time of the Revolution, but is really the fruit of reflection on the whole history of human society. With the Declaration, our founders answered the question of our capacity for self-government and liberty within the context of human nature. The Declaration of Independence can be very instructive about the difficulties of forming and preserving good government and self-government, and the way in which a citizenry must keep itself in readiness to meet those difficulties. The Constitution reflects a profound resolution of the age-old challenge of forming governments that will respect basic human dignity and yet still retain the energy and effectiveness that are needed to keep order in the society and help it to defend itself. It is the vocation of every citizen to apprehend, in some measure, what a triumph of right reason and prudence our founders left us.
But such insights are not likely at the beginning of study, nor are they necessary. What is necessary — what will stop the killing of bodies and souls in American schools — is that our children appreciate why they are blessed to live in this country. America uniquely respects the liberating truth that control of the passions, in service of justice, is the true road to earthly happiness. Bullies will remain and so will lost souls — this too is part of the human condition. But if we begin once again to “Teach Freedom” in our schools, we will help make sure that the bullies are outnumbered and kept in their place by educated young gentlemen, and that lost souls are surrounded by the love, wisdom and hope of peers who can help them find their way. Especially among young people, fear of the Lord, and respect for the truth, reliably inspire decent self-mastery and can even inspire miracles of charity. We must not be shy in proclaiming these as the proper fruits even of civic education.
The work of restoring Declaration ideals to America’s life will be a long one. The Teach Freedom Act will, I hope, become a catalyst for a nationwide movement to teach these principles in our schools. This initiative has come to my attention because the Declaration Foundation recently completed production of a book devoted to helping our young people examine seriously the Declaration of Independence, its principles, their application in the American Constitution, and how these things have affected the history of America. I believe that this book, America’s Declaration Principles in Thought and Action, would answer very well to the needs and requirements of Rep. Green’s proposal for the Texas schools and it is, in fact, being considered for that purpose.
Teaching the Declaration — teaching freedom — is the duty of every American. I believe that our nation would be transformed if its citizens began again to take seriously the duty of teaching all our young people the true nature, cost and blessings of the liberty possessed by those who seek to govern themselves in accord with justice and God’s will. May Rep. Green and the Teach Freedom Act serve as an example to us all.