Teaching the US Constitution to the Rising Generation

I will never forget a conversation I had with a young friend of mine who attends one of the local high schools. He was reviewing with me the classes in which he was currently enrolled. One of them was Advanced Placement American Government. I asked him to tell me about what the class was learning and the methods employed by the teacher. He said the main assignment was that each student had to bring a current issue to class. Three or four issues would then be chosen which would be the basis of the discussion for that day. He said there would quickly develop several different opinions strongly expressed by members of the class as they tried to convince others of their point of view. I asked him if the teacher gave any input, to which he replied: "Oh no, the teacher says he doesn't want to influence our minds with his opinions. He merely wants us to be able to convince others of our position. But we have some pretty good discussions."

I asked him if the teachers taught any underlying principles of good government to the class. He said no. I asked him if the teacher expected the students to read and study the writings of the founders and to learn their reasoning on important issues. He said no. I asked him if he felt there was a serious study of the Constitution itself. Again, he said no.

As our conversation ended I thought to myself how sad it is to have the opportunity to do some valuable teaching and have such great influence over young inquiring minds-only to see it squandered in opinions and rhetoric. And somehow this passes the requirement for studying the Constitution in high school.

Studying the Constitution becomes a Requirement in 43 States

In 1926, Samuel P. Weaver, a member of the Spokane , Washington Bar Association, outlined the growing concern for stronger teaching of the Constitution after World War I:

"The gospel of the Constitution began to be proclaimed during the period immediately following the World War. Prior to that time the schools taught American History and civics, and in connection with those courses sought to train the students in the mechanics of government. After the war, however, when our national safety was threatened by the rapidly spreading danger of Communism, by the questioned loyalty of groups of foreign-born citizens and the ignorance and indifference of many others, leaders of political thought fostered a movement for a more general, uniform and effective teaching of the Constitution. Under the leadership of the American Bar Association and other patriotic organizations, forty-one states [by 1926] have enacted statutes requiring the Constitution to be taught in the schools."

My own state of Arizona was one of the 43 states which eventually adopted legislation requiring the teaching of the Constitution. The Arizona Revised Statute 15-710 mandates: " all public schools in the State which are sustained or in any manner supported by public funds shall give instruction in the essentials, sources and history of the United States Constitution,. and instruction in American institutions and ideals. ." And if that isn't enough, our state law further declares to public school teachers that "Willful neglect or failure ... to observe and carry out the requirements of ARS 15-710 is sufficient cause for dismissal..." (ARS 15-508)

By the end of the decade of the 1920's, 43 states had been persuaded to pass new laws, or emphasize old ones, requiring instruction about the Constitution in the schools. Even Congress became involved; in 1925 the U. S. House of Representatives, by a vote of 162 to 29, passed this resolution:

Whereas it is essential to an intelligent and loyal discharge of the duties of citizenship that the citizens of this country have an appreciation of, reverence for, and devotion to the ideals and principles underlying the Constitution of the Unites states, together with the realization that to it we are indebted for the blessings of political, religious, and personal liberty and freedom of action which we enjoy, and the responsibility for its maintenance and preservation rests upon us, and

Whereas a thorough and complete knowledge and understanding of the history and meaning of the Constitution is necessary to a proper appreciation of, reverence for, and devotion to it: Therefore be it

Resolved, That the House expresses its earnest hope and desire that every educational institution, whether public or private, will provide and maintain, as a part of its regular curriculum, a course for the study of the Constitution of the United states, provide necessary facilities for this purpose, and place the same under capable and proper instructors; such course to begin at the earliest age at which children are capable of receiving such instruction and to continue during each scholastic year. To this end the cooperation of all commissioners, secretaries, and boards of education, whether Federal or State, of all patriotic or educational societies and associations, as well as the governors and legislatures of the several States, is earnestly invited and solicited.

It is interesting to note that national emergencies, concerns about foreign presence in our country, and warlike threats to our nation always bring us to reexamine our teaching of the Constitution. It is as though Americans innately know that answers to our problems lie in that document. With the events of September 11, 2001 emblazoned on our minds, we are once again asking ourselves how well we are really teaching the rising generation the correct "essentials, sources and history of the United States Constitution."

A National Report Card on Teaching the Constitution

Mr. Weaver later gave an assessment as to the teaching of the Constitution in the schools. While his remarks are many years old, his description accurately describes our situation today:

"The Constitution should be taught as a separate course of study.. This recommendation has met with the approval of the teaching profession. Many teachers and educators say there is no time in the present organization of the school system to allot for a separate course in the Constitution of the United States , and that the only way they can teach it is incidentally in connection with courses in history and civics. For example, in South Carolina it is a part of the history course; in California it is a part of the course in civics. In many states it is reported as a part of both of these courses. In Missouri it is taught only incidentally. In almost all of the states it is taught by reference only. While no one will deny that the teaching of history and general civics offers many opportunities to impress the lessons of patriotism and good citizenship, yet all of us should readily understand that the fundamental principles of our constitutional government cannot be taught in this manner. The Constitution, being the source of all powers of our national government, should be emblazoned on the minds of every citizen with a distinctness that time cannot obliterate, and this can only be done when it is presented clearly and unobscured in its original setting and outlines.

"As a general rule there is little effort to teach the development of the Constitution, or to uncover the foundation upon which our constitutional structure rests. For example, there is no clear or adequate explanation of its development through colonial charters, state constitutions, the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Ordinance of 1787, and other important instruments of government. Its kinship to the common law is not referred to in any text. Its relation to the customs and the commercial and social conditions existing at the time of its adoption are not adequately discussed. Its application and growth to meet critical conditions at the different periods of our history and at the present time have not been illustrated or explained.

"Some of the texts have abandoned the method of discussion used by Justice Story, Judge Cooley, and other eminent authors, and have adopted a method of their own. For example, two texts do not contain the Constitution except in the appendix. One author has reclassified the clauses of the Constitution and grouped them under divisions selected by him, under the theory that the high school student must be content chiefly with the study of selected topics. Some of the texts contain references and questions that are frivolous: (1) what is meant by gerrymander; (2) what is a filibuster; (3) what is a lame duck; (4) can a lame duck be appointed to office; (5) why did Mr. Bryan resign from Mr. Wilson 's cabinet? While these questions relate in a general way to the administration of our government, can they be said to inspire in the student an unfaltering devotion to the Constitution? Do they impress upon his mind and heart the great truth uttered by the immortal Gladstone : 'The American Constitution is the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.'?"

Mr. Weaver discusses the fact that most high school textbooks are poorly written and factually incorrect. He then raises the question as to who should prepare the texts for this purpose. He continues:

"It is not necessary that the authors be lawyers, but they must understand the law and its many distinctions. The Constitution is a legal document, and no person can explain it intelligently unless he has a clear conception of the history, meaning, growth, and application of the principles upon which it rests. Almost all of the present texts reveal a lack of legal appreciation on the part of the authors which makes them fail to accomplish the purpose desired.. The author to be successful must have the following qualifications: (1) he must be thoroughly trained in the law; (2) he must understand methods of teaching; (3) he must understand the methods used in writing textbooks; (4) he must be able to analyze the Constitution, its background, its meaning, and its application to conditions arising since its adoption; (5) he must have the time, industry, and ability to devote to the work."

Mr. Weaver gave suggestions as to what a great textbook on the Constitution would contain. Among other things he included: (1) It should orient our Constitution among other constitutions in the world. (2) It should trace the development of the great principles of the Constitution from their English and American origins. (3) It should explain how these principles were built into our present constitutional structure by the Constitutional Convention and the conventions of the original thirteen states. (4) It should analyze the Constitution section by section and paragraph by paragraph. It is difficult to improve upon the clear, logical arrangement of the scholars of the Constitutional Convention. (5) It should explain the meaning of all the provisions of the Constitution and all legal and unfamiliar terms and phrases so that students become familiar with the framework and the powers of our national government from the great instrument which is their fountain source. (6) It should illustrate how the Constitution, through the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, has been interpreted and applied to meet new conditions as they have arisen during all periods of our history so that students can understand the timeless nature of this marvelous document.

The National Center for Constitutional Studies 
provides leadership in teaching the Constitution

NCCS, an organization founded nearly 40 years ago, is fulfilling the urgent need to teach the Constitution, not only to the rising generation but to all Americans concerned about the direction of our country. NCCS is not affiliated with any political, religious, or governmental organization but stands independent in its effort to teach Americans the exciting message of the Constitution in the tradition of the Founding Fathers. This organization is not centered on one person, but really belongs to all Americans as we work together to restore the wonderful vision of a Constitutional America.

We are pleased that some of our material has been used in many public and private schools of the nation as teachers fulfill their desire to teach fundamental principles of the Constitution. The distribution of our pocket Constitution has reached into the millions, being used by legislative, executive, and judicial officers in government, candidates for public office, and by millions of American who find answers to problems of the day. The DVD "A More Perfect Union" has been ordered and used by thousands of schools and school districts. Our "Making of America" seminars are in increasing demand across the nation, being held in several places simultaneously on many weekends, and taught by instructors who receive no pay, but give of their time for the cause. Webinars on the Constitution now make use of technology in order to reach many hundreds of people who heretofore have not been able to attend in person.

All of this helps to fulfill the desire of Thomas Jefferson who gave the formula for survival in future times of trouble when he advised us "to show that even when the government of its choice shall manifest a tendency to degeneracy, we are not at once to despair, but that the will and the watchfulness of its sounder parts will reform its aberrations, recall it to original and legitimate principles, and restrain it within the rightful limits of self-government."

We welcome all citizens who are concerned to join us in this effort.

Sincerely,

 

Earl Taylor, Jr.