Teaching the Constitution

The Public Interest Institute (PII) recently released a new policy study entitled “A Republic If You Can Keep It: Failing To Teach First Principles,” which highlights America and Iowa’s failure to ground young citizens in “civic education.” The Public Interest Institute is an independent, non-profit organization located on the campus of Iowa Wesleyan College in Mt. Pleasant. It is committed to doing research “on principles and methods to promote and encourage human rights, economic freedom, economic growth, and the creation of jobs here in Iowa.”

The report essentially says that, when it comes to American history and institutions, many American’s are like the people on The Tonight Show’s popular “Jay Walking” segments, in which Jay Leno would ask questions to random people on the street whose answers were often woefully ignorant.

Some statistics cited by the report, from various studies:

  • 52.1% of undergraduate seniors could not recognize that the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” is from the Declaration of Independence.
  • 52% of college graduates believe that the phrase “wall of separation” is found in the Constitution.
  • Less than 50% of average Americans can name all three branches of government.
  • Only 27% understand that the Bill of Rights prohibits the establishment of an official state religion for the United States.

Why does civic education matter? Because, the report states, “Americans have a citizenship responsibility that requires an informed patriotism based on our history and institutions.” This lack of “informed patriotism” has left the nation “facing a national emergency of losing not only its identity, but also history and values.”

The PII report also analyzes the core curriculum of Iowa’s institutes of higher learning and finds them lacking on civic education. It points to the curriculum of Hillsdale College (Michigan) and Patrick Henry College (Virginia) as examples of good grounding in civics.

To remedy the situation, the PII study recommends that governors and legislators should push for higher required standards on civics education. It also suggests that citizens should lobby their elected officials and hold education institutions “accountable” (whatever that means).

A warning missing from the PII study is that we need to be wary of how this new civics would be taught and who teaches it. “Civics education” can easily be perverted by a usurping government into political propaganda, or more likely just a sloppy and inaccurate presentation of the subject.

For instance, worrying about the lack of “civics education” caused the U.S. Congress to want to establish “Presidential Academies” to help teach the subject. Ironically, the U.S. Constitution gives Congress ZERO authority dealing with education ( and the 10th Amendment reminds “powers not delegated to the United States [government] by the Constitution, […] are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”). Can institutions chartered in violation of the Constitution be reliable teachers of constitutional principles?

Another cautionary tale on civics education comes from “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution,” a widely-used high school civics textbook. An analysis done by Gun Owners of America discovered some interesting points in the textbook.

Firstly, the aforementioned 10th Amendment is not even mentioned in the section dealing with the Bill of Rights. Not even once! When the book discusses federalism it “treats the federal government as the octopus head which can dictate to the tentacles (the states) what they must do,” (in GOA’s words).

The Second Amendment is discussed in an historical context, but is presented as hopelessly out of date. Students are asked: “Do you think the Second Amendment is as important today as it was in the eighteenth century? Explain your answer.” and “What limitations, if any, do you think should be placed on the right to bear arms? How would you justify those limits? ” Students are not asked to similarly question the relevance of any part of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but are asked how it might be expanded in this country.

Although I agree with PII that state governments could push for higher standards in civic education, I believe that the primary responsibility belongs to the people themselves. We must first teach ourselves. (I’m still learning too.) We and our civic groups must teach our children and our fellow citizens on America’s history, identity and values. The reason civic education is in such sorry shape is because we have already given so much of the task to the state.

We must read the Declaration and Constitution. When they are old enough, my kids will be receiving handsomely bound copies (after they get their Bibles, of course). We should read our state constitutions as well.

There are many fine books out there dealing with Constitutional principles. On everyone’s short list are “The Federalist Papers” and “Democracy In America” by Alexis DeTocqueville. I would also recommend “The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates” by Ralph Ketcham and “The Bill of Rights Primer” by Akhil Reed Amar. For middle-school age kids and up, I recommend “The U.S.Constitution for Everyone” by Jerome Agel. Also try “Revolution: A Manifesto” by Ron Paul. [Some of these are located in the “Important Documents” section at the right side of this blog.]

At the end of the day, only we the people can instill the “informed patriotism,” that the PII study speaks of, in our fellow citizens and future generations. We HAVE to if we want “America” to mean anything more than a mere geographic location on the map.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching the Constitution”

  1. Does “Law Day” still exist? When I was in high school back in the Cold War days, high school seniors spent May 1 at the local courthouse learning about civil rights and responsibilities. I think this was meant to be a counterpoint to the communist May Day holiday, which celebrated the triumphs of the proletariat. I remember it as an interesting field trip and a chance to think not only about rights, but responsibilities such as voting, jury duty, etc., and wondered if schools still do this.

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