10/30/2012 04:49 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2012

Subjects or Citizens?

United States history is the story of a compelling idea that continues to revolutionize the world. Unfortunately, American schools today disregard that history. They toss it to the side as if it were an encumbrance impeding progress towards preparing students for economically useful forms of employment.

The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) released a fact sheet on October 10, 2012 describing state law, standards, and requirements for civics in K-12 education. Every state has standards for social studies -- history, government, economics, civics, sociology, geography, and anthropology -- but few states actually have statewide testing for social studies. In fact, the number of states testing social studies declined dramatically in the last decade, from 34 states in 2001 to only 21 today. And the quality of exams declined significantly as well. In 2000, tests were a combination of multiple-choice and performance tasks, such as essays in which students demonstrate critical thinking skills. Today testing is exclusively multiple-choice. Only nine states require that students pass a statewide social studies test to graduate from high school. Only eight states test American civics or government, and only two require students pass a civics/government test for graduation. Only two!

The CIRCLE fact sheet also casts some light on the nature of social studies instruction. Forty-one percent of students described the course of study as "the Constitution or the U.S. system of government and how it works." Thirty-two percent said it was principally "wars and military battles" and twenty-six percent described learning about "great American heroes and the virtues of the American form of government." Only eleven percent recalled discussions about "problems facing the country today."

We must remake American history and civics to focus on ideas -- not things, not systems, not wars, not heroes, not forms of government -- ideas. Ideas the founders enumerated in the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Ideas that changed the world. Ideas that resonated yesteryear, resonate today, and will resonate for generations to come. Yet somehow these precious ideas are unappreciated, unexamined, and untaught even to the American students who benefit from them every single day.

Foremost among these ideas is citizenship. Americans invented the modern citizen. At the time of our Revolution, nearly every individual around the world was a subject. They owed life and existence to the largess of a monarch, theocracy, plutocracy, or oligarchy. The American colonial subjects of King George III turned that notion on its head and declared, in the words of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, "That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants and at all times amenable to them."

The idea that governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed" wasn't new. Enlightenment thinkers had theorized about this notion for a century. A group of North American colonists, however, implemented that idea and an experiment in self-government that is still vibrant today. Or is it?

Around the world today, most individuals still owe their life and existence to the largess of a dictator, theocracy, plutocracy, or oligarchy. They live in an old world where rights are vested in rulers and doled out to the people. Rulers are stingy with the rights they grant to people and rulers are prone to take back privileges they have granted to their subjects.

But in the United States, we live in a new world. We understand that rights are vested in individuals. We understand that individuals grant rights to government, and "We the People," the rulers of our government, are stingy with the privileges we grant to the "magistrates" who are our "trustees and servants."

Our continuing journey to realize that revolutionary idea -- that precious idea -- resonates throughout American history. It is the story behind our successes and our challenges. It is the foundation, the cornerstone, of everything that is American. It is our great national unifying ideal. It makes each and every one of us citizens, not subjects -- citizens of our government, our communities, our workplaces, our schools, and even our families. Just reciting platitudes about ideals is not enough. Being a citizen means challenging ourselves to understand, and then acting upon that understanding. And what about the future? Citizens take on responsibility for preserving those ideals. American history chronicles that struggle and every American should study that history and discover how those stories can help them take up the responsibilities of American citizenship today.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in his 1782 "Notes on the State of Virginia" that "Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories." The people are the safe repository of the idea that is America. In order for us to remain a free and vibrant people -- in order for us to protect, nurture, and transmit this grand American experience to a new generation -- we must educate ourselves and our children to understand our revolutionary heritage and how it helps us meet the challenges of our modern world. That is the real purpose of education in our republic.