Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Some thoughts about civics education



It's a document that was written 200 years ago, but has remained the law of the land for over two centuries. It's a document that created the most successful government in history, but is increasingly under attack today. It's a document that is more inspiring than most high schoolers would think possible, but which most high schoolers could tell you only a little about.


Abraham Lincoln

The document is, of course, our Constitution; and in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "Let reverence for the [Constitution], be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap - let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; - let it be written in Primmers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; - let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars ... While ever a state of feeling, such as this, shall universally, or even, very generally prevail throughout the nation, vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom." (Source: University of Michigan website)


The Constitution



Yet it is not taught in schools, in seminaries, or in colleges - at least not to the degree that it should be. Our school system, which has the responsibility of teaching this material, often fails to do so; not only for the usual reasons that American education often fails, but also because the Constitution is increasingly under attack by liberals; and political correctness ranging from the Founding Fathers' slaveholding to criticism of the economic freedom that democracy permits prevents its true nature from being taught. Thus, many American students graduate from high school without knowing a thing about it. Worse yet, many are entirely misinformed about it.


A replica of Independence Hall, which is not surrounded by
high-rise buildings (that don't belong in the period) the way the real one is today

It was not always so - the Constitution was once reverenced by the people, as Abraham Lincoln advocated. But the curriculum in our history classes has been changed to focus on social history and labor history - of women's rights and persecuted minorities - to the point that the story of how our country was founded is lost. The things they focus on instead are important and a part of the history; but if it gets to the point that people graduate from high school without knowing even basic things about the Constitution, then the system has failed. Few could tell you the issues debated at the Constitutional Convention, few could tell you that there were debates over ratifying (let alone what the issues were there), and fewer still could quote you any portion of the Constitution outside of its amendments. (Not that the amendments and the Bill of Rights aren't important - they are important, and vitally so; but the original Constitution we were given - with its separation of powers among three branches, and its checks and balances between those branches - has been lost in a clamor for politically correct history; and we are paying a price for it today.)


The Bill of Rights

In fairness to high school history classes, they don't have time to focus entirely on these issues; as many other periods must be covered in the general American history courses. But there is one class that should be focused on these things, to a degree the history classes are not; and that class is American government. It's known by many names - "government," "civics," and "political science" - but whatever you call it, the high school government classes should spend a lot of time on how this government was framed, and what the Founding Fathers said about its Constitution. I was fortunate enough to have a civics teacher who was a conservative, and who devoted adequate time to these things; and so I know that it is still possible to do it right. These problems will not be solved overnight; but in those areas where Republicans and independents dominate, we can take back our educational system from the liberals, and force them to put the Constitution back in the civics curriculum. Thus, it might return to its honored place in our hearts. This can be done, and this should be done.


Interior of Independence Hall

But in many areas (even some Republican ones), it will not be possible to do this; for liberal teachers can be hired anywhere, and can indoctrinate even in the most conservative of regions. Thus, we have to educate in the place where all real education starts - in the home. Civics education begins in the family, and it can be used for good or ill. We can't control what the liberal parents do (and shouldn't be able to anyway), but we conservative folks can raise our children in the tradition of the Constitution - teaching them what the Founding Fathers really said, and what the Constitution truly means. We can do what our school systems often refuse to do, and participate in civics education of our children. We can teach them the importance of the Constitution from an early age, so that they will pass on its protections to their children. And we can do all this within the walls of our own homes, and keep our democracy strong.


John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence

We won't be able to solve these problems overnight, and we won't be able to change the system everywhere. But in those areas where Republicans dominate, we can put the Constitution back in its central place in American education; and we can once again be protected by its safeguards. The real story of this country's founding is more inspiring than we know, and the Constitution can be brought to life for students, escaping from dusty history books and into a glorious consciousness of living free in a democracy. We can make the Constitution a living and breathing part of our country; and we can make it something sacred - like the ancient words of God himself.


Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States

A miracle occurred at Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. The United States Constitution was signed. It was the product of four long months of heated debate, signed by forty men who disagreed with each other on many issues. Fifteen of the men present at the convention refused to sign, and some worked against the Constitution, whipping up public sentiment against it. They made many changes against it, including that it had no national Bill of Rights. They and the proponents of the Constitution debated for months afterward over the ratification of the document. But almost a year after the delegates in Philadelphia had signed the Constitution, it was finally ratified by the States. The country created a national Bill of Rights a few years later, by passing ten amendments.


Benjamin Franklin

It was not a perfect document. But Benjamin Franklin expressed his doubt about "whether any other Convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an Assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does ... Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best." (Source: University of Chicago website)

I share Benjamin Franklin's astonishment that the system approaches so near to perfection as it does. I am also astonished that the system has lasted as long as it has. It is the oldest constitution still being used today. Truly a miracle occurred at Philadelphia on September 17, 1787; and the miracle lives on. I express my wish that the miracle will continue to live on, and express my love of the United States Constitution on its special anniversary day.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Economics education

The Constitutional Convention

The United States Constitution

Part of a series about
The Constitution

The Constitution itself, and the story behind it

Convention at Philadelphia: The writing of the Constitution (1787)
Preamble: The Constitution's mission statement, with some thoughts about separation of powers
The Congress: Its power to make laws, and the president's power to veto them (in some cases)
Frequency of elections: So how long do all of these people serve, anyway?
Representation: So who decides how many votes each state gets?
Slavery: The complicated legacy of the "Three-Fifths Clause"
The presidency: Powers of the executive, and their being subject to impeachment
The courts: "Good behaviour," some important judicial powers, and how they're appointed
Miscellaneous: Amendment process, "supreme law of the land," and some closing remarks

Debates over the Constitution, then and since

Debates over ratification: Whether to adopt the Constitution in the first place
The "Federalist Papers": Frequently asked questions about them, and why they're important
Debates over checks & balances: Do they actually conflict with separation of powers?
Debates over states' rights: What power should the states have in the Union?
The Bill of Rights: Important in the debates over ratification (adopted 1791)
The Constitution today: Some thoughts about civics education


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