Students With Failing Knowledge of U.S. History Miss Significance of Magna Carta

“John, John, bad King John

Shamed the throne that he sat on; …

So the Barons brought a Deed;

Down to rushy Runnymede,

Magna Carta was its hight,

Charter of the People’s Right,

Framed and fashioned to correct

Kings who act with disrespect –”

-Eleanor Farjeon, Bad King John, 1940

June marks the 800th anniversary of 25 medieval English barons forcing King John to affix his beeswax seal to the calfskin parchment of Magna Carta, the Great Charter, among the oldest and most important legal documents in the history of Anglo-American law.

In 1215 King John was an incorrigible tyrant. His reign was marked by the arbitrary exercise of power through force, expensive and unsuccessful foreign wars, and fathering several children with wives of various noblemen. England’s feudal barons had had enough.

Magna Carta subordinated the king to written rule of law and protected the rebellious barons’ rights, including from illegal imprisonment. It states: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions … except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”

Sadly, most American high school students today don’t even know much U.S. history; even fewer understand the basics of Magna Carta. Nevertheless, over eight centuries, Magna Carta has become the most enduring legal symbol of limiting the authority of those in power to trample the rights of subjects and citizens.

In 1628, England’s greatest jurist, Sir Edward Coke, used Magna Carta’s legacy to author the Petition of Right. The Petition served as a legal bridge connecting Magna Carta with modernity, elevating the law and subjects’ rights over the king’s arbitrary prerogatives.

Coke’s work also strongly influenced the 17th-century royal charters for Britain’s North American Colonies, including those of Massachusetts (1629), Maryland (1632), and Virginia (1606), which he had drafted earlier. Coke’s classic legal textbooks educated America’s revolutionary and founding generations in Magna Carta, habeas corpus, due process, trial by jury and the rule of law.

By democratizing Magna Carta’s principles, colonists including John Adams, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson, learned from Lord Coke and others how to uphold their rights and the law by defying King George III. “Magna Carta is such a Fellow,” Coke wrote, “that he will have no Sovereign.”

Magna Carta’s ideals are firmly embedded within America’s Founding Documents. A patriot with Magna Carta in one hand and a sword in the other appears on the 1775-80 Massachusetts Seal. A replica of Magna Carta is on display in the crypt of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Our schoolchildren should know all of this, but they largely don’t. American students’ performance was mediocre on the eighth grade civics portion of the recently released 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the Nation’s Report Card. This result has remained mostly unchanged for 16 years.

In 2013, the federal government indefinitely postponed the 4th and 12th grade U.S. history-civics NAEP tests, blaming it on a $6.8 million sequestration budget cut. The 8th grade civics test will continue to be administered, but still only every four years. Since high schoolers generally study U.S. history in the 10th or 11th grades, the test won’t record their progress.

There is an outstanding exception.

This spring, at the 28th annual finals of “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution,” a national history contest promoting civic knowledge, 1,200 high school students from across the country spent three days answering questions about Magna Carta, Edward Coke, and Anglo-American constitutionalism. Since 2011, though, “We the People” has been defunded by the White House and Congress; now it relies on private donations.

Six years ago, then-Governor Deval Patrick, claiming a prohibitive $2.4 million cost, cancelled a requirement that Massachusetts public school students pass a basic U.S. history MCAS test to graduate.

“[W]e must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world,” Winston Churchill pronounced in 1946, “and which through Magna Carta … find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.”

Drawing resolve from the 1215 heroism of England’s barons, it’s beyond time we hold state and federal officials accountable for promoting, teaching, and testing civic history in our schools.

Jamie Gass is director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.


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