Monday, July 4, 2016

Do You Know What the Declaration of Independence Means?

Happy Fourth of July! I don’t know about anyone else, but I am sitting here, mulling over the current state of American political discourse.

I think we can probably agree, it’s not exactly on the same high level as we might have seen in 1776.

(Then again: women can vote. African Americans are free. It’s not as bad as some people seem to believe.)

In any case, when I was teaching, I was a massive fan of the Declaration of Independence. I still am. I love the message the document sends, even if sometimes the messengers who send it are flawed.

Luckily, I taught in the days before all the standardized tests. That meant I could do what I thought was best for kids.

But before we continue, why don’t you take out a piece of paper and write down all you recall about the Townshend Acts?

Done? Sure you are. 

You don’t know squat.

You don’t need to, either; no one cares today; but you might want to think about the fact the people who push all the standardized tests think you should know about the Townshend Acts—and the Proclamation of 1763—and maybe the Sugar Act, too.

But what about the ideals of the Declaration? These ideals on which our nation was founded still matter very much today.  

In my history class, I wanted students to be able to answer the six questions which follow, with the answers to all six to be found in a short section of the document, only 84 words long.

1. Government gets its power from ___.
2. If government does not work we have the right to ___.
3. Governments are set up to ___.
4. If government works as it should everyone will be treated ___.
5. Certain basic rights cannot be taken away from you by ___.
6. Government should leave you alone to enjoy ___.

If it’s been a few years since you had a class in American history you may not recall that the Declaration is several pages long.  Most of that length is filled up by a list of grievances against Parliament and George III. 

But if you are a normal American—and admit it, you think you are—you have forgotten what those grievances were. Whereas you may still remember the lyrics to “Yellow Submarine” and be able to list all the movies in which Blake Lively has starred.

In my class, we began with a few specifics. Courtney could immediately raise a hand and name the main author of the document (Thomas Jefferson, in case you forget); Eric or Renee might know the date and year of the document (July 4, 1776).  Then I liked to add a few relevant details. I pointed out, for example, that Jefferson was a slave owner, hypocrisy never running far below the surface of politics. 

Then I might tell my students: “If you don’t know anything about the Declaration of Independence you shouldn’t be allowed to shoot off fire crackers on the Fourth! You shouldn’t get a hot dog, either,” I added.

“You should have to eat strained peas.”

Joking aside, I was always deadly serious about the Declaration, about imparting critical knowledge. So I required students to memorize the critical section which still matters today, which will always matter in human affairs:

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; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government.

To help my seventh and eighth grade students grasp what the Declaration is all about, and aid a bit with memorization, I provided a copy of the section in two forms, one seen above.

In the version below, the words in capitals tended to confuse some or all of my young charges. So we started by defining each of these. Someone like Cheryl or Cathy might realize at once that “self-evident” meant “obvious.”

Blake—not Blake Lively, but a star student in my fourth bell class—might offer, “It means ‘something proves itself.’”


So, we’d move along. Few students could ever define “endowed.” I used the same joke every year.

“‘Endowed,” I explained, “means ‘granted at birth, born with.’ Some of us are endowed with great intelligence. Some of us are endowed with good looks.”

I would always fluff my hair at that point. Sometimes my loving students would groan and hiss.

We worked our way through: unalienable = can’t be taken away; secure = protect; consent = permission; abolish = get rid of.

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;                             
that, whenever
any form of government
becomes destructive
of these ENDS,                                                              
it is the right of the people
to ALTER OR ABOLISH it,                                        
and to INSTITUTE                                                        
a new government.

When Kayla fell asleep one day in class, during a typically scintillating discussion on this topic, I woke her gently, and from then on liked to call her “Rip Van Kayla.” (She did fall asleep in class a lot.)

This required a quick aside on the legend of Rip Van Winkle.

As for those six questions—shown again for convenience—the answers to some came quick. Mara and Leslie both raised a hand to answer the first. Mara was quicker, and when called upon, supplied the word “people.” Brad was equally quick to supply an answer for four. “Equally,” he said.

1. Government gets its power from ___.
2. If government does not work we have the right to ___.
3. Governments are set up to ___.
4. If government works as it should everyone will be treated ___.
5. Certain basic rights cannot be taken away from you by ___.
6. Government should leave you alone to enjoy ___.

The answer to #2 also came fairly fast every year, in every class. “Change the government,” Heather said.


Then #6: “To enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?” Candace tried with a tinge of doubt.


Number three always proved difficult. Eventually someone realized that Jefferson was saying government existed to protect our rights. 

Yes. Yes, YES. That’s a critical point.

But the greatest confusion came when we tried to get an answer for #5. (I’m afraid some politicians couldn’t answer this today.) “The government,” some student would always try first.


 “The president?” “Jefferson?”  “Congress?” others would try. You always had some poor devil that stuck up a hand and repeated: “The government?” 

No, no, no.

And still no.

Finally, Jodi or Jamie would realize what Jefferson was saying and respond, “Anyone. He means our basic rights can’t be taken away by anyone.” 

I would sometimes reach in my desk and pull out a candy bar from a rather large stash I kept, and toss it to the student who had just answered.

“Very good, that’s right,” I’d say. “Jefferson was saying that God granted us our rights at birth and those rights cannot be taken away, not by anyone, not by government, not by other citizens.”

I don’t know: I think these ideas matter, on this day, July 4, and on every other day of our lives.

If it's good enough for Abraham Lincoln,
it's good enough for me, and my students, and all Americans.


You know, if you’ve taught more than five days, that not all students are going to willingly sit down and memorize 84 words of anything; but I expected it to be done, and always put those six key questions on my American Revolution test, on the first semester final, and on the final every year.

I always gave students a week to commit the piece to memory and then on the day of the quiz asked them to take out a sheet of paper and write the section above for a test worth 75 points.

(Some students preferred to come back to my desk and quietly recite it, instead.)

I was a fanatic when it came to learning, I guess. And I was happy every year that a large majority of students earned A’s or B’s on the first try. (I gave those who had C’s or D’s an option to try again later. I wanted everyone to succeed.)

But every year, fifteen or twenty students would complain during the day, “I can’t learn this! It’s too long! Boohoo. Boohoo.”

Too bad, I always replied.

I required all who failed to come in and try again during lunch. Let’s say I had twenty students in a typical year who had to try again. Two or three wouldn’t show up as required. Another might have a hidden, pre-written copy in a book and try to slip it out when I wasn’t looking. (I usually was.) Three or four would fail again. Typically, most earned A’s and B’s with a smattering of C’s. (I always gave kids the higher grade; as I said, I wanted them to succeed.)

I told the three or four who failed again to return again the next day. 

Then I steamed down the hall to the lunchroom to hunt down the two or three who hadn’t shown up. These lucky teens were awarded detention after school and yet another chance to study and get their grades up. 

By that time, I had missed my entire lunch. 

So I bought four fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies from the lunch ladies and wolfed them down as I headed back to my room, wiping the last crumbs from my lips as I began my first class after lunch.

Eventually, all but one or two of those who said they couldn’t learn the Declaration did. All I had to do was miss a few lunches and stay after school once or twice.


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