What Happens When Americans Forget Our Nation’s History?

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This article is part of series focusing on Lens of Liberty, a project of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation.

In a recent Liberty Minute, “Memorizing Dates or Principles,” Helen Krieble brings to light just how clueless Americans are about the basic principles upon which their country was founded:

A lot of us are upset about a new report on how little American students know about our country’s history and government. Can you believe that less than a fourth of graduating seniors know how their government works? But more frustrating, even fewer know the most basic details about our country’s founding principles.

It’s tempting to demand better curriculum and testing on history, civics, names, and dates, which are important, but we need to look through the lens of liberty and realize that the survival of our unique American concept of self-government depends on educated citizens understanding and defending these principles, not just knowing facts. Teaching these principles was the reason public schools were created and still should be their most important purpose.

A republican form of government depends on educated citizens knowing basic principles before they head to the ballot box. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 recognized that knowledge would be necessary for the new nation to survive:

Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

Historical knowledge is so much more than just memorizing dates, however. Americans should be familiar with principles such as representative government, equal protection under the law, and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — all of which the Founding Fathers considered of immense importance.

Knowledge is necessary for any good government, and specifically American knowledge is necessary for good American government. Shared American principles and goals have the power of holding our country together. If they are forgotten, nothing but division will ensue.


Terry Schilling

Terry Schilling is executive director of the American Principles Project.