By Dara Lind
Because nothing goes with a rainy Sunday afternoon like some well-placed outrage, I’ve been working my way through the text of the new Texas social-studies curricula for middle and high school. As Ali mentioned, they’re pretty bad, and some of the elements that upset me most have flown under the radar (I’ll go into one of them in another post). But I have to say, I approve of this requirement:
Each school district shall require that, during Celebrate Freedom Week or other week of instruction prescribed under subparagraph (A) of this paragraph, students in Grades 3-12 study and recite the following text: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness–That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.”
I’m perfectly well aware that the Texas Board of Education probably chose that particular passage because of the phrase “endowed by their Creator,” and I’m under no illusions that teachers will bother to explain to their students that the Creator in whom Thomas Jefferson believed would look pretty alien (if not downright heretical) to most Christians in the state. Jefferson himself barely makes a cameo in the curriculum for this very reason. Even the Texas Board of Ed seems to understand that recent conservative efforts to emphasize the Founders’ “Judeo-Christian ethics” and religiosity are completely hopeless.
But while I think emphasizing the text of the Declaration at the expense of its context is misguided, I much prefer treating the Declaration as a secular prayer to treating the Founders as secular saints. Glenn Beck’s Colonial Williamsburg schtick weirds me out, but so, in its way, does the obsessive historicism of liberal David McCullough groupies. The Declaration itself, on the other hand, has been as influential as it is largely because it’s such an elegant piece of writing; John Locke, for all his brilliance, wasn’t the prose stylist Jefferson was. It is worth memorizing, at least in part. And making kids memorize this passage reminds them that America wasn’t founded to realize some sort of “American” ethnicity, but to realize a set of ideas. I don’t imagine third graders will have any sort of transcendental experience while reciting it in unison at the end of Celebrate Freedom Week (ick), but I’d settle for the grudging respect most students have for the Pledge of Allegiance, which is patriotic for all the wrong reasons and much less inspiring.
However. If states with Boards of Education less insane than Texas’ decide to adopt this requirement, I’d love to see them use not only the Declaration but also the Preamble to the Constitution. It’s almost as elegant as the Declaration and complements it nicely, with a focus on positive liberties where the Declaration emphasizes negative liberties. Most importantly, it’s really easy to memorize thanks to the awesome Schoolhouse Rock song about it:
I learned this song over a decade ago for a production of Schoolhouse Rock Live! (In my misspent youth I was a mediocre musical-theatre actress.) I can still sing it. Civic literacy through song: it works.