Despite its problems, the American higher education system remains the envy of the world. Students pour in from around the globe to study here, including more than 150,000 from China in 2011. But one student, here for the first time this year, has a higher profile than most. And he’s gaining a greater understanding of what freedom means.

In April, Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest and sought asylum with American diplomats in Beijing. Chen, who’d been persecuted for “exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in China,” was eventually allowed to come to theUnited States to study.

“For the past seven years, I have never had a day’s rest,” Chen announced after his arrival inNew York. “So I have come here for a bit of recuperation in body and in spirit.” However, it hasn’t been all R & R. Chen was serious about studying, and he’s learning some “self-evident” truths he was never exposed to inChina.

“Five times a week, under the guidance of an English tutor at New York University’s law school, Chen has been using the Declaration of Independence as a makeshift textbook,” The Washington Post reports. “[F]or a man who spent most of the past decade imprisoned inChina while fighting for the rights of his fellow villagers, it resonates deeply.”

As it should with all people, everywhere. After all, the Declaration “articulates the fundamental ideas that form the American nation: All men are created free and equal and possess the same inherent, natural rights,” The Heritage Foundation explains. “Legitimate governments must therefore be based on the consent of the governed and must exist ‘to secure these rights.’”

Chen recognizes that China’s government has a long way to go. But he’s confident that the ideals of the Declaration apply to the Chinese as much as Americans. “Chinais on a march toward rule of law and democracy,” he told the Post, “and when that time comes, concepts like this will play a vital role.”

The newspaper adds that: “Chen will slowly make his way in the coming weeks from the Declaration of Independence toward constitutional law—a path he sees as fundamental to his objectives.”

As the July 4 birthday of the Declaration of Independence approaches, Americans should remember that we’ve moved from declaring independence in 1776 to founding a republic under the Constitution. We’re a beacon of freedom to the world, and our most important export isn’t a product or service—it’s our founding idea, which is still being studied and learned by people around the globe.