In the May 1 issue of New York magazine we observe Harold Levy, interim chancellor of New York City's public schools, preparing to deliver a speech. We learn that he does not know the origin of the phrase "the better angels of our nature," and that he has great difficulty finding any of his teachers who recognize these words as those concluding Lincoln's famous First Inaugural.
In a new book on school reform, Becoming Good American Schools, four veteran educators appeal to the authority of Thomas Jefferson on the importance of education to maintaining liberty, but then misquote what should be the most familiar passage of the Declaration of Independence: "â€¦[Jefferson] wrote that our inherent and inalienable rights include 'the preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'."
Even worse, these authors insert a footnote suggesting that Jefferson thought property rights unimportant, because he did not specifically list them in the Declaration. This is wildly inaccurate. Consider Jefferson's First Inaugural: "a wise and frugal government...shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government."
In light of these and countless other similar anecdotes, we should not be surprised at test results showing that three-quarters of high school seniors lack proficiency in civics. Nor should we be misled into believing that the solution is to be found in increased funding. The solution is harder, and will require, first, recalling the objectives of pre-university education.
Jefferson himself listed these objectives fairly clearly in 1818: " To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business;  To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts, in writing;  To improve, by reading, his morals and faculties;  To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either;  To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor, and judgment;  And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed."
In short, in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, schools should "instruct the mass of our citizens inâ€¦their rights, interests and duties, as men and citizens."
What we lack today, what we desperately need, is something like the understanding of education that Noah Webster possessed. The title page of Webster's Speller, the primary textbook used in America's schoolhouses during the first 80 years or so of the Republic, bore the motto: "Begin with the infant in his cradle: let the first word he lisps be Washington."
The Claremont Institute is near completion of an exciting new web site on George Washington, for use in the school and the home. Already, I should remind you, we have developed the definitive "user's guide" to the Declaration of Independence on the Internet, at Founding.com. I encourage you to visit it often.