My fifth-grader was lucky enough to participate in the “We the People” contest this past month. This is a great program and the type of thing that I wish we did more of in our schools and in our society as a whole. I am so grateful for her teachers and school that support this program.
We need more efforts to teach our students about our Constitution and our civic duties. I especially enjoyed that this program tried to make the fifth-graders think critically about important issues and not just memorize basic facts. Watching the “congressional hearings,” where the fifth-graders presented all that they learned to a set of judges, was a great experience. Such great kids learning so much.
Having said all of that, in working through the problems with my daughter, I was disappointed in how some of the questions were framed. After reading the section on the Bill of Rights, the very first question the students were required to write a response for was: “What is more important, protecting individual rights or promoting the common good?”
Now, I understand what the author of the question was trying to get at, but framing the question this way really illustrates the false premise that much of our political debate is based on. We have somehow gotten to the point as a country that we think it has to be one or the other, that somehow giving up our individual rights is a necessary step to promoting the common good. That, somehow, protection of individual rights and honoring individual rights hurts “the common good.”
The true genius of the founding of this country was, for the first time in recorded history, the recognition that the opposite is true. The men and women that built the foundation of our country understood that it is the protection and upholding of individual rights that will do the most to promote “the common good.” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Political freedom includes in it every other blessing. All the pleasures of riches, science, virtue, and even religion itself, derive their value from liberty alone.” It is by protecting these individual rights that we can best advance as a society and promote the common good.
Perhaps more important, the founders realized that this liberty and these individual rights set out in the Constitution were not just something made up by government, that these were rights “endowed by our Creator,” and that these rights are “unalienable.” To this end, Alexander Hamilton declared, “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”
And again, I understand a fifth-grade “We the People” question is not going to get into this level of discussion. However, far too often, our actual political dialogues are based on this same false premise – that the best way to promote the common good is to infringe on individual liberty.
The opposite is true. The best way to promote a higher standard of living, more happiness, more advancements in science and technology and the overall “common good” is by protecting individual liberties. That was the true genius of our Constitution, and that is what has made America the greatest country in the history of the world.
We are not perfect, but almost all of our mistakes have come when we fail to protect individual rights and liberties. Most of our shortcomings have been when we lose sight of the fact that those rights are granted to all people equally.
My prayer is that as a society and as a state and a nation, we can return to the fundamental principles of our Constitution and know that the best way to promote the common good is by protecting individual rights. In short, the question should be – “How does protecting individual rights promote the common good?” That would lead to a far more thoughtful and accurate discussion.