Scott Mooneyham: Promoting radical thinkers
By Scott Mooneyham
Capitol Press Association
RALEIGH — Earlier this year, North Carolina legislators chimed in on a subject that had brought derision upon state educators the year before.
In passing the Founding Principles Act, legislators made known that they wanted high school students to take another dip in U.S. history that included instruction on the ideas of the nation’s founders and the country’s founding principles.
The legislation reinforces steps taken by the state Board of Education in 2010.
The board agreed to require two U.S. history courses for high school students after an earlier proposal would have limited history instruction in those grades to a single course covering only the period from the Reconstruction Era forward.
That initial proposal led to a fit of angry letters from parents and some teachers, along with public ridicule from news commentators.
It should have. As I wrote at the time, “Wouldn’t students also profit from examining the ideas of the founders, and the origins of the ideas that led to country’s founding? Given today’s political polarization, there’s plenty of value in understanding that we are all creatures of Locke and Rousseau, that how we see ourselves in the world, our individuality, our freedom from place, is a product of their ideas.”
The bill passed by legislators, in overwhelming, bipartisan votes in the state House and Senate, focuses on the founders and not the Enlightenment thinkers who influenced them.
It does call for students to have “a clear understanding” of the founding ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist Papers and other writings of the founders. It goes on to require instruction in “Creator-endowed inalienable rights of the people” and “individual rights as set forth in the Bill of Rights,” among other subject matter.
Of course, this could be dangerous business, this calling for the study of the writings of the founders.
After all, these fellows were revolutionaries, radicals. They read European philosophers. They delved into religious thought that was anything but mainstream.
Many of them didn’t care much for authority figures, of the government or religious variety.
Thomas Jefferson compared judges to thieves. He was no fan of preachers either.
Jefferson, though, penned something called the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which protected preachers.
The law ensured that the Anglican Church would never again be the official church of the state of Virginia. It also meant that Baptist preachers wouldn’t be run out of town, that they wouldn’t be required to seek government licenses to preach, that their tax dollars wouldn’t go to support the activities of another denomination.
Jefferson would later refer to this kind of thing as a “wall of separation between church and state.”
Like many of the founders’ thoughts, it’s an idea born out of complex circumstances, coming from a complex mind.
So, hurrah for our state legislators. Jefferson’s wall and other ideas critical to our country’s founding deserve more study, by students of all ages.
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Scott Mooneyham writes about state government for Capitol Press Association.