The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 22, 2018

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Memo to Academia: Celebrate Constitution Day the Right Way—Teach the American Founding
Richard Brake - 09/17/10

Today is Constitution Day, a federal observance of the anniversary of the official signing of the U.S. Constitution, which took place in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. Of course, this second attempt at a federal union (the first, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, had proven to be quite “un-perpetual”) would not become official until three-fourths of the thirteen original states had ratified the new document; which occurred on June 21, 1788 when New Hampshire became the ninth state to do so. Until that time, a significant sticking-point in the ratification debate had been the lack of a federal bill of rights to protect both individuals and states from intrusions from the federal government. But when a compromise was struck that promised immediate action on such amendments, key states like Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia eventually followed suit, though not without considerable debate and consternation. I mention this at the outset because it is always important to remember that even our greatest political achievements are not devoid of controversy, and that the opponents of the new Constitution deserve to be considered crucial players in this founding “moment.”

As a country, we have been commemorating the Constitution’s passage since 1952, when Congress officially declared September 17th to be “Citizenship Day.” However, things got considerably more serious in 2004 when the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the self-proclaimed “Historian” of the Senate (or the “King of Pork,” as others liked to call him), attached a rider to an omnibus appropriations bill requiring all schools receiving federal aid to annually “hold an educational program on the United States Constitution.” Since then, colleges and universities, dependent as most are on federal largesse, have been forced to hold Constitution Day celebrations, varying in seriousness from a Vanderbilt lecture arguing that such federal mandates like Constitution Day were themselves unconstitutional, to a kind of constitutional bake-sale at Xavier University, where three huge cakes were cooked-up depicting the Preamble and key provisions from the Bill of Rights. Since the law’s implementing language was kept purposely vague, it is likely that such a wide disparity in academic quality will continue to mark future Constitution Day celebrations.

But on a deeper level, I suppose it says quite a lot about the current state of scholarly priorities that Members of Congress have seen it fit in the first place to impose federal mandates for the teaching of the American Founding. For as much as I too recoil reflexively at the notion that politicians should be in the business of establishing specific curricula for colleges and universities, there is little doubt that today’s students are graduating from college with a scandalous ignorance of the fundamental features of our constitutional republic. I know this because in both 2007 and 2008 I have directed national civic literacy surveys of college graduates for ISI that have proven empirically and conclusively the extent of this collegiate civic ignorance.

For example, after testing 7,000 seniors from 50 separate schools in 2007, we discovered that only 44 percent of them could select, out of five possible multiple-choice responses, the correct definition for federalism. Similarly, only 42 percent of these same seniors knew how judicial review was established; only 50 percent knew why The Federalist Papers were written; and only 29 percent knew which branch was responsible for receiving ambassadors. They did slightly better with the principle of separation of powers (75 percent knew it), but overall, twelve of the sixty multiple-choice questions on our 2007 civic literacy exam dealt with the Constitution, and the average score for seniors on those questions was a 51 percent, or “F.”

Then, in 2008, we expanded our pool of test-takers to Americans of all backgrounds and ages, college educated and not. Of the 2,508 adults we surveyed, 406 of them had earned a bachelor’s degree and only a bachelor’s degree. For these college graduates, only 64 percent could identify all three branches of government and only 62 percent knew which of those branches has the power to declare war. Interestingly, both of these questions come from our government’s newly redesigned citizenship exam. We also asked this same cohort a few questions from the National Assessment for Education Progress twelfth-grade civics exam, and the results were similarly disappointing. For example, only 68 percent of these college graduates knew which institution shared foreign policy-making authority with Congress, and only 44 percent could identify the constitutional contributions of the Anti-Federalists. And when we asked our respondents other background questions about their political and educational habits, we discovered that for most college graduates the following combination had a more positive impact on civic knowledge than an entire bachelor’s degree: independently reading political books and articles; discussing current events with their friends and neighbors; and participating in local community affairs. Clearly, something is seriously wrong with collegiate constitutional education, in particular, an appalling lack of required courses on basic American government and history.

(Let’s see if you can do any better than today’s typical college graduate. Take our tailored Constitution Day civics quiz.)

So, what is to be done about this national embarrassment? Here’s a thought: instead of merely relying on one forced and often flaky day of constitutional study, why not make the study of the American Constitution, and the American Founding more generally, a clear curricular priority at our nation’s top campuses? It is a sign of our highly-politicized age that such courses are now thought to be tinged with ideological presentiments, as if a serious and critical study of the pros and cons of the American Constitution is somehow a conservative or liberal issue. That would have struck both the proponents of the new Constitution, the Federalists, and their opponents, the Anti-Federalists, as a highly irregular and dubious claim. For them, it was understood that questions of constitutional structure and principle were by their nature debatable, but that the remarkable accomplishment of our constitutional order was exactly that such debate could be conducted in a relatively calm and deliberate manner. It is that kind of reverence for America’s founding principles that I am suggesting should not be left to the whims and caprices of individual undergraduates, that is, American colleges should once again require such coursework as a condition for graduation. And not because the federal government mandates such an approach, but because it is self-evident, like our natural rights, that such academic inquiry is essential if we expect to produce informed and responsible citizens capable of enlightened self-government.

Finally, speaking of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, absent a return to traditional college courses on the American Founding, a good place to start one’s own constitutional self-education is with those two collections of rival political treatises. The more I read them (and you can find them here and here), the more I am amazed at how prescient and relevant these debates were and are to our current political controversies. Of course, careful attention to the Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian debates during Washington’s first term is also instructive for many of the same reasons. But if you are looking for some quick, quality reads on a few of the lesser-known but quite influential advocates of Federalism and Anti-Federalism, might I suggest two recent works from ISI’s publishing house that fit the bill—An Incautious Man: The Life of Gouverneur Morris by Melanie Randolph Miller, and Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin by Bill Kauffman. Getting to know better these unsung heroes of the founding period will go a long way in helping you put our own constitutional debates within a useful political and historical context.

In The American Cause, historian and essayist Russell Kirk, writing at the height of the Cold War, had this to say about the dangers of American ignorance:

But if we seem to the rest of the world to stand for nothing; and if we ourselves are ignorant of those ideas and institutions which nurture our culture and our political liberty—why, then we will fail, no matter how great our industrial productivity is, and no matter how many divisions we equip, and no matter what ingenious weapons we devise.

Kirk’s warning is as relevant today as it was back then, and we risk long-term decline if we do not heed the call and once again make the American Founding a key component of a university education, and for that matter, all levels of American education. For in the end, a lone, annual Constitution Day—as valuable as that is—will simply not do if we expect this remarkable document to last for another 200 years.


For more on the Constitution, check out the Founders and Constitution Set from ISI Books.

To learn more about the Constitution, visit the ISI short course on the American Experience .

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