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Liberty’s Kids and Liberty

Liberty’s Kids is a cartoon produced by DIC entertainment (with funding from PBS and the U.S. Department of Education) and distributed at one time by PBS as part of their PBSKids programming lineup. The characters are a group of teenagers who witness and report on (and sometimes participate in) the events of the American Revolution. It is, in keeping with the general philosophy of PBS children’s programming, education encoded in entertainment. I briefly sampled a couple of episodes to test its suitability before turning my own children loose on it, and it seemed inoffensive and useful (if simplistic) in providing a rudimentary introduction to America’s founding fathers and founding principles.

However, by accident one day, I caught the tail end of an episode dealing with the writing of the Constitution and found one item troubling.

I wrote a letter about my misgivings and sent it to PBS. I received no reply. The program seems no longer to be distributed by PBS, although it has its own web-site and appears still to be in distribution elsewhere. I presume the cancellation had to do with ratings rather than with my objection.

1 June 2003

I had never seen your show but for a few brief snippets, but my children had seen it in the past and, in general, I support the idea of educating children on American history in any way we can get them to pay attention.

However, the program we watched today on the creation of the Constitution left me with a concern.

The fact that complexities were over-simplified is part of the format and a necessary evil. However, at the end one of the characters, as a closing remark on the Constitution, read from its preamble. Nice touch — except that they left part of it (many would say the most important part) out. What they read was:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, …. , promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to us and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution of the United States of America.

What was left out, of course, were two of the primary purposes of government, ones which provide the necessary specifics for fulfilling what the Declaration of Independence considered the very reason for government to exist — the protection of individual rights. The missing phrases were:

… to ensure domestic tranquility, to provide for the common defense, …

My first reaction was confusion, then pique at apparent stupidity. It wasn’t until later reflection that my current cynicism over the degree to which extreme partisanship rules our national political discourse made me wonder if there wasn’t some more nefarious motive behind the omission: by removing those phrases, the subject of which many ‘conservatives’ regard as the primary purpose of government, it thereby elevated the notion of “promoting the general welfare” to elemental importance, a notion at the heart of ‘liberal’ notions of the purpose of government. Was this an innocent, if lame, oversight or a subtle stab at indoctrinating the young audience into the ‘proper liberal’ way of thinking about government?

As I said, my concern originated in cynicism and I expect there is an innocent but wrong-headed reason for the omission. Nonetheless, it leaves me wondering and it reminds me of how narrow the difference can be between education and indoctrination, especially among the very young. I can guarantee that my children will never again watch this program without my wife or me present to fill in the gaps — and that is too bad.

© Copyright 2003, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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