Remember why we have freedom

This July 4 we celebrate the 231st birthday of our nation.

What does that mean?

For 52 percent of college seniors polled in a recent survey, it apparently meant very little. The students were asked to identify the source of the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

The question was posed by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute to 14,000 randomly selected seniors and freshmen on 50 college campuses as part of a 60-question multiple-choice test about our nation’s history and institutions.

According to the ISI’s findings, only 48 percent of the seniors correctly identified those words as coming from the Declaration of Independence. More than 400 of the students surveyed said the phrase could be found in Karl Marx and Frederick Engel’s “The Communist Manifesto.”

Some of us may be a bit rusty on our history. We have a lot to think about on a day-to-day basis and the origins of our nation may not be high on that list.

But if students about to graduate from college are having trouble with the basic facts of the birth of our nation, maybe we all need to brush up a bit on how we got where we are.

Our country is experiencing changes that make us wonder how long the freedom and independence that Americans take for granted can last.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks have led, directly or indirectly to a costly war in the Middle East. Our government has adopted policies that no one would have thought possible 25 years ago, claiming that they are necessary for our safety and security. Prisoners have been held for more than five years without being charged, let alone brought to trial.

Government officials have probed Americans’ bank records, tapped their phone lines and weakened fundamental protections for the gathering and publishing of news that had been in place since the Watergate era. The Patriot Act alone radically changed the landscape for the privacy of U.S. citizens.

Our porous borders have allowed 10 million illegal immigrants to slip into our nation, by some estimates, and our government has been unable or unwilling to stop the flow to the point that now private citizens calling themselves “The Minutemen” have taken matters into their own hands to try to help the apparently beleaguered Border Patrol.

Our nation’s increased emphasis on diversity is leading to a weakening of our unity, as various segments of the population plant their flags and demand their rights. Diversity is not necessarily evil, but, like many things, it can be taken to an extreme and the extreme in this case could result in segments of the U.S. population ignoring the values that have made the nation what it is and producing hostility.

The framers of our Declaration of Independence knew what they were doing and why. They had a painfully real understanding of why the liberties they installed in that declaration were vital to the new nation they were founding. The framers themselves didn’t agree on everything, but they had enough in common that they put their differences aside and signed on the dotted line.

John Adams once declared that “liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.”

Liberty starts with people who demand it. If you don’t expect the government to stay out of your life, it will certainly be there in full force. Knowledge, the understanding of how government works and the role government should play in our lives, is key to the establishment of liberty because, again, freedom starts at home, with the individual citizen.

We’ve heard for years that Americans, as a whole, are becoming less knowledgeable of public affairs, despite the proliferation of TV news and the Internet. It’s not fun to get drilled on the facts of history, and many educators have shied away from that approach to learning, with the result that, well, many of us don’t know the basics any more.

The preservation of liberty in America will require action from us, the citizens. We need to educate ourselves, learn how and why our country was founded 231 years ago. We need to know how our government is supposed to work, so we can tell if it’s actually doing what it should.

Knowing history helps us avoid the errors of the past. If we don’t pay attention to the past and apply that knowledge to current affairs, how are we going to know what to think about issues such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, our relationship with China, the European Union and our current immigration problems?

Knowledge really is power, and when people are ignorant, they have no power.

You, the citizen, need to get involved on the local level and beyond. Attend an occasional City Council and School Board meeting. You’re the one who voted the members of these bodies into office. Pay attention to what they’re doing. We know some people in this community care about what’s happening because we see their letters to the editor in this newspaper and others. Do you?

Don’t hesitate to contact your state and congressional representatives. All it takes is a phone call or an e-mail.

If Americans lose the understanding of and appreciation for why we are free today, then that liberty is likely to disappear. Don’t lose it.