“How many amendments does the Constitution have?”
“When was the Constitution written?”
“What is one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for?”
“What territory did the United States buy from France in 1803?”
“Before he was President, Eisenhower was a general. What war was he in?”
“Name one of the two longest rivers in the United States.”
Do these questions sound familiar? They are six of the one hundred questions on the United States Citizenship Civics Test, a test that high schoolers in nine states (AZ, ND, SD, UT, ID, TN, SC, LA, WI) will now have to answer correctly in order to graduate, thanks to efforts from The Civics Education Initiative. The Initiative cites passing this requirement in nine states as “a first step to ensure all students are taught how our government works and who we are as a nation, preparing them to exercise their vote, solve problems in their communities and engage in active citizenship.”
With Donald Trump a top presidential contender, the top two democratic presidential candidates struggling to understand the Black Lives Matter movement, and the media’s attention as much on candidates’ food preferences as their policy preferences, I agree with The Civics Education Initiative that it is more important now than ever to teach America’s youth about what it means to be an active American citizen. If we don’t provide the proper education now, we can expect ignorance and ambivalence to continue to be the predominant civic trends in our country.
However, I disagree with the Institute that this test is the right way to go about instilling civic duty. Off the top of my head, I can answer two or three of the above questions with confidence (especially if you count being a womanizer as one of Benjamin Franklin’s claim to fame), provide an educated guess on two, and a wild guess on the last one. Yet, I consider myself to be extremely politically involved, I have a deep knowledge of the framework of the Constitution and Constitutional law, and think that I could hold my own in a debate with any of the current presidential candidates (well, at the very least not embarrass myself). While facts are memorized – and easily forgotten – the stories and debates behind the facts are what are truly important to shaping civic mindedness and are what we should be teaching students.
The shallowness of political thought in the U.S. is alarming. And with partisan rhetoric existing to reinforce this shallow thinking, something drastic must be done in order to raise the level of discourse in our political debates. Rather than forcing over-tested students to memorize 100 facts (how boring!), we need to ignite their passion. Going back to the roots of our nation, back to our original dialogues and discussions, and recognizing the Constitution for what it is – open to interpretation and debate – are essential to reviving our democracy and reshaping electoral politics.
If I had to create the most effective plan to teach U.S. history, government, and civics all in one, I would turn to the Supreme Court. In order to study any Supreme Court case, it is necessary to understand the historical background and landscape, the Constitutional questions, the merits of arguments coming from both sides, and how these debates and questions apply to the world today.
Take Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) as an example. In simple terms, Dred Scott was a slave. Originally purchased in Missouri, he was brought to Illinois, a free state, by his owner where they lived for some time before eventually returning to Missouri. Upon the death of his owner, Scott sued for his freedom, claiming he was no longer a slave after having lived in a free state.
This sounds pretty straightforward, yet in order for students to understand the case fully, it is necessary to take a step back in time, to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where the framers were grappling with several issues.
The framers came together to solve a puzzle: what to do with thirteen colonies that were essentially sovereign nations, but at the same time loosely organized into a federation that was about to go bankrupt? The framers wanted to bring these states together into a union, but did not know how to do this without a king or a monarchy. Never in recent history had this been done.
Political theorists were split into two camps. The Hamiltonians – a.k.a. the Federalists – wanted nothing to do with states. Rather, they wanted a strong federal government that had a lot of centralized power. On the other side of the debate were the Jeffersonians – a.k.a. the anti-Federalists – who were fearful of a powerful and centralized government, having seen the potential dangers of such government in the monarchy of England. They wanted to keep government small, and leave most of the power in the hands of states. Also up for debate was the pink elephant in the room: slavery. Would it be legal in the union? Legal only in parts of the union? How were slaves to be counted for representation? Were slaves citizens?
After learning these foundational theories, students would take part in a the mock-Constitutional Convention. Students would be split into two camps, the federalists and the anti-federalists, and would debate and discuss political theory. The convention would culminate in the creation of their own constitution. Through this exercise, students would practice creating and debating arguments for their own side and anticipating and preparing responses for arguments coming from the other side.
Next I would ask how the classroom constitution differs from what the founders came up with? Their result was the Constitution of the United States, a document riddled with compromises and ambiguities. Which states were slave states and which were free states was vague, who were considered citizens of the United States of America was vague, and if states or the federal government had specific powers was vague. Rather than answering every question that was posed, the document produced was a framework for argument. It is a document that allows us to continue to discuss and debate the core issues that we face. This is why still today we have political and legal debate over what the Constitution means and what it should mean.
Back to the Dred Scott case, we would now examine how the various parties interpreted the text of the Constitution to support their sides.
Lawyers arguing on Scott’s behalf covered the issue of citizenship and whether or not he had the right to sue in federal court. They claimed that the Constitution does not specifically say that blacks cannot be citizens, and pointed out that women and minors could sue in federal courts even though they did not have the right to vote at the time. Therefore, Scott could potentially be a citizen, and even if he wasn’t, he still could sue in federal courts.
On the issue of citizenship, the other side argued that the framers did not intend for slaves to be citizens since the Constitution recognized the existence of slavery. On the issue of federal powers, the defense also argued that “the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that outlawed slavery in some future states was unconstitutional because Congress does not have the authority to deny property rights of law-abiding citizens. Thus, Scott was always a slave in areas that were free.”
I would now ask students how they interpret citizenship in the Constitution. How would this apply to the Scott case? Turning to recent events and arguments surrounding citizenship and immigration, what makes citizens different from non-citizens today? Who should be considered citizens? What rights should citizens and non-citizens hold?
Second, I would ask students if they thought that states or the federal government should determine if Scott was a free man. Further, I would explain how the power structure of federal versus state has evolved over time, what powers the states and the federal government have today, and would ask students to debate if and how this should be changed.
Adapting this lesson for different ages, even elementary school children can begin to grapple with these issues and learn how to think critically, skills that can be applied to any case, historical event, or modern topic of discussion.
Regardless of the exact details of the lesson plan, the result is not that students are able to regurgitate names and dates: what year the Constitutional Convention took place, the name of all the men in the federalist and anti-federalist camps, the year of the Dred Scott case, or the exact wording of parts of the Constitution. Although this is what most history and government classes focus on, this is perhaps the least important part of and the most boring way to learn history, government, and civics.
Rather, the goals of the lesson are for students to:
- Learn about history in context. Understanding how something in 1787 affects something in 1856 affects something in 1865 affects something in 2015 is more important than knowing the exact dates of all of these events.
- Consider both sides of an argument. Having to support or anticipate arguments from both sides means that students have to think about the big picture and think critically.
- Think from the bottom up rather than the top down. Trying to debate modern events without a backdrop is dangerous in today’s political climate. I know in high school, the rhetoric of the party I identified with clouded my thinking. I came up with petty defenses to support what the party told me was right. Instead, students should learn the basics of the arguments first, learn what theories they agree with and what values they hold, and apply this thinking to modern debates without party politics coming into play.
Then, they should teach voters and politicians how to do this too. Imagine if voters and politicians supported their claims with historical information that isn’t taken completely out of context. Imagine if voters and politicians actually thought about and debated the merits of arguments coming from all sides. Imagine if voters and politicians supported their ideas with complete fundamental theories, rather than shallow rhetoric. Oh what a world this would be!
While it is quite difficult to change the minds and methods methods of older voters and and elected officials already in office, we can prepare the youth of today for their future, instilling in them the knowledge and skills that will allow them to be capable and engaged thinkers and doers of the future.
The United States of America was always intended to be and remains the great political experiment of the modern world. Without a change in how we think about and approach civic duty and politics, this experiment can and will fail.
P.S. For an interesting take on the Constitutional Convention, I recommend listening to this Radio Lab podcast.