Pennsylvania Legislator Wants Schools to Teach Founding Documents

Published June 1, 2007

Freshman state Rep. Todd Rock (R-Franklin) introduced a bill this spring that would make Pennsylvania the second state to require public schools to teach foundational American documents as part of its American History requirements.

California passed a similar law in 2003. Rock said schools should not leave out the nation’s founding principles in order to focus on other more “politically correct” topics.

“As a parent and former teacher, I want to do everything I can to ensure that Pennsylvania’s students explore American history from the Declaration of Independence to the present day, rather than a limited number of topics that certain special-interest groups deem as politically correct,” Rock said in a March news release.

“We’re working on adding co-sponsors to the legislation right now and hope to introduce the bill sometime this week or next,” said Debbie Finney, Rock’s legislative aide, in late April. At press time, a bipartisan coalition of 30 co-sponsors had signed onto the bill.

Divided Attention

Critics say reading George Washington’s Farewell Address is like reading the King James Version of the Bible, and that teachers competing with MTV, YouTube, and iPods find it difficult to keep students interested in 200-year-old documents.

High school graduation requirements are often vague about social studies criteria, and most four-year colleges require only one class of American History and one semester of American Government.

Rock argues it is important for the next generation to learn about the Founding Fathers’ vision because it affects their participation in civic duties.

“Requiring that schools teach these materials will reignite the flame of civic passion within our young people, [which is] needed to sustain our great nation,” Rock said.

Historical Ignorance

Rock’s concern is backed by a 2000 study conducted by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), which found college and university upperclassmen to be embarrassingly ignorant of basic historical facts.

The ACTA study showed four of five seniors from the nation’s top 55 universities and colleges could not identify Valley Forge as a Revolutionary War battle zone, nor recognize a Gettysburg Address passage. Most were unfamiliar with basic principles of the U.S. Constitution, and less than 25 percent knew James Madison was the person who drafted it.

By contrast, 99 percent of the students knew well the cartoon characters Beavis and Butthead, and nearly as many readily identified rapper Snoop Dogg.

Greater Participation

A study with similar findings was released in September 2006 by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), a nonprofit group based in Delaware, which with the University of Connecticut surveyed 14,000 randomly selected college freshmen on their knowledge of American government and history. Seniors at 22 of the 50 colleges surveyed failed to answer 50 percent of the questions correctly, on average.

The report, The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions, predicts serious ramifications from this ignorance.

“Students who demonstrated greater learning of America’s history and institutions were more engaged in citizenship activities such as voting, volunteer community service, and political campaigns,” the authors noted. But students can’t learn what universities don’t teach, the report observed, and prestigious schools did just as poorly in the survey as state schools. Seniors on average scored only 1.5 percent better than incoming freshmen.

Even more troubling, according to the survey, was the fact that 16 of the colleges showed a negative learning trend–students knew even less about the Constitution and other historical documents when they graduated from college than when they entered.

Fran Eaton ([email protected]) writes from Illinois.

For more information …

“Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century,” published in February 2000 by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #21188.

“The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions,” Intercollegiate Studies Institute, September 2006,