By Patrick B. McGuigan
University of Oklahoma President David Boren came to the state Capitol Friday (February 5) to summarize the “scandalous and shocking” lack of understanding about American history and government among the nation’s top college graduates. At the same time, he expressed hope because of a variety of efforts under way in Oklahoma to assure more and more students gain knowledge of the essentials of the American governing system.
At a press conference in the governor’s conference room, Boren pointed to a study from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). The group reported that 50% of students at the nation’s top colleges and universities – Boren said “these are the Ivy League schools and their equivalents” -- believe that the U.S. president can suspend the Bill of Rights in time of war.
Boren, in response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, elaborated that ISI found that 78% “do not know that the Constitution requires Congress to declare war. They don’t know that the president cannot wage war on his own authority.” A survey reported in the San Diego Union found that half of students graduating from those top colleges and universities could not name which side our nation fought on in the Second World War. Boren’s voice expressed dismay as he said, “They did not know our brave soldiers fought to destroy Nazi tyranny.”
The educator -- a former Oklahoma legislator, governor and U.S. Senator -- described these findings in highly critical terms several times in his press conference. He commented, “It is scandalous and shocking to realize that so many of the nation’s brightest students have not learned that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, paid for by the blood of patriots, protect our liberties. “
Boren said our country must honor the memory of those Framers “who risked everything” to assure our freedoms would be sustained. To leaven the bad news, he pointed to several developments in Oklahoma that give him hope for the future. He specifically touted the new Institute on American Constitutional Heritage at the University of Oklahoma, directed by Dr. Kyle Harper.
Boren expressed pride in Oklahoma requirements to teach American history and government at universities and colleges. He also applauded the role of the state’s 219 private foundations providing additional resources to public schools. He encouraged those local foundations to concentrate new resources on supporting training for more Oklahoma teachers in programs offered by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Mount Vernon and other educational groups.
Boren spoke during a full day that brought hundreds of Oklahoma elementary students to the Capitol for activity centered on Colonial era history, civic education and other activities. The day’s program included a visit from a re-enactor portraying Martha Washington, wife of the nation’s first president, games played in the normally staid halls of the Capitol, a “legislative” session for the youngsters in the state House chambers, and many other activities.
Boren said programs developed in Oklahoma will provide “a model for all 50 states to promote more teaching of American history and government. It is past time for Americans to relearn what made us great.
Bill White of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation joined Boren at the Capitol press conference, hailing the state’s “remarkable public-private partnership. Oklahoma has 700 graduates of the Teacher Institute at Williamsburg. These teachers are creating the next generation of American citizens. In many ways they have the most important job in our culture. Every generation recreates the Republic. The only roadmap we have to our future is our past, the history of our country, the stories that live and come to life in our history. “
Boren reported some 11,000 Oklahoma students have experienced “virtual tours” provided by the foundation White represents. He also reported some 19,000 have been exposed in creative ways to the example of the nation’s first president, George Washington.
Boren has taught American government for 31 straight semesters at OU. He reflected, “A great unifying example, George Washington held us together. His example, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights holds us together even now. They are our glue, our binding force.”
Boren could scarcely have been more explicit about his concerns, and his reasoning: “We are in a political crisis. The political crisis is our leaders wasting time fighting one another when voters want them and need them to come together.”
The country also faces what Boren characterizes as a “citizenship crisis.” He summarized his view this way: “I am really concerned. Our people are not well-versed on the Constitution and history. And many of our leaders are also poorly informed. We have a stewardship responsibility to ourselves and to those who come after us. Citizens must understand who we are and where we’ve been, before they understand how to take us forward.”