Free Speech Crisis is a Failure of K-12 Education

At universities across the country, including Yale, Purdue, Missouri, Princeton, and Georgetown, students have protested environments they find hostile and supportive of racial discrimination. In several of these cases, students have called for limits on free speech and the press in the midst of their protests, shocking pundits, parents, and others nationwide with their lack of understanding and respect for our fundamental First Amendment rights.

These actions, however, are supported by the results of a recent PEW research poll, which found that 40% of millennials support government limits on free speech when it pertains to offensive statements about minority groups, a significant increase from their counterparts in previous generations.

Why are millennials so affable to government limits on free speech?

Why do they lack a basic zeal for protecting our fundamental rights?

Our education system has failed them from the earliest moments of their classroom experience. These issues weren’t simply incubated on college campuses by progressive professors in recent years. As civics and history education is minimized as an afterthought in our K-12 schools in place of a hyper-focus on math and language arts, deep-dives into the important themes and events in human history have been replaced by an Olympic sprint through hundreds of years of valuable content with a test as the finish line. Memorizing dates, names, and places in order to pass these tests have eclipsed valuable time spent evaluating the basic ideas of freedom. Students see our Founding documents not as beacons of opportunity but boring textbook addendums they read and forget, moving on to the next required standard or course.

Recently, several states have passed or are seeking well-meaning measures to implement a "citizenship test" as part of high school graduation requirements in the hopes of improving civic knowledge and engagement. As we can see by the results of the PEW survey and the rhetoric stemming from current student protests, students just aren’t receiving enough in-depth civic education. In the current environment of test-based accountability, students are over tested and under-achieving and another test isn’t the answer. Students must engage with content – tangibly – in their daily lives to gain a true appreciation that will last with them into adulthood.

Rather than read the Constitution, they should evaluate it. Students should experiment with determining the Constitutionality of legislation that impacts their state, community, or individual lives. They should act out the legislative process. They should know how they interact with government on a daily basis and what those interactions mean for their individual freedoms.

Can today’s high school students share examples of civil disobedience in context with an understanding of what it meant to stage a sit-in, to protest for basic civil rights, and where the right to do so came from? Do they know why colonists came to the New World and how each colony was formed with an individual purpose and identity with economies shaped by geography? Can they provide a modern day comparison with what Dr. King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail? Do they understand why Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense on the eve of the American Revolution? Do they grasp the Fourth Amendment and why they should be acutely aware of its’ protections as they enter adulthood?

Or, are these simply words, titles, and people on a test, to be memorized and forgotten rather than applied to events in modern life? Until students are presented with opportunities to directly engage with the Constitution in a relevant and meaningful way deeply connected to their daily lives, to contemplate the consequences of government actions in comparison to the past, they will continue to believe the purpose of government is to create safe spaces from the realities of the world and jobs they can simply walk into post-graduation. It’s time for parents to step up at the dinner table and have these conversations.

It’s time for all of us – parents, teachers, students, and local leaders to engage our schools with these ideas, to step up, and to bring civics back to the front of our educational conversation. If we don’t, our individual freedoms, the free market, and the free world will continue to face the consequences.