The events at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 and the exhortations by some elected officials leading up to them got me to thinking about civic responsibility and our nation’s future. It also reminded me of a conversation I had with someone I had met while in the Navy years ago. In an exchange about the Constitution, he asked, “Which Constitution do you believe in?
At first, I didn’t understand what he meant. Then I remembered the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett and her testimony on the meaning of “originalism.” So, I concluded, this is what he asked: Did I believe in the Constitution of 1787, that followed the American Revolution, or was I one of those who believe in the Constitution that followed Reconstruction and gave previously denied rights to all people?
Those who cling to the original wording of 1787 maintain that the text is authoritative and unchangeable. They seem to ignore that the Constitution was written and adopted with provision for evolution in thinking and amendment. Without the amendments, Barrett wouldn’t have the right to vote or serve as a judge.
I began thinking about this question, which Constitution, while pondering the events of the past few months and the rampage that took place in the halls of Congress. Why don’t we know more about our history and our form of government? Why do some people react angrily when historians offer research demonstrating that some long-held truth turns out to be incorrect? Ours is called an exceptional country, but it isn’t exceptional in the ways some espouse. They claim a moral superiority when the claim is really different.
What has become the United States is not a nation based on tribal affinity, a common land or region, or blood relations, as are some others. Instead, it is a nation unlike most because it was founded on ideas and ideals that became the founding principles of freedom, civic engagement and responsibility, and schooling for citizenship. These principles, and others, still obtain, even if they aren’t fully realized. That’s why we refer to the nation as an “experiment,” and why we strive to “create a more perfect union.” We recognize it is not yet perfect, but continue to strive for it to be — for all people.
Those old enough will remember junior high and high school courses in civics, including formal instruction in U.S. government, history and democracy. For the fortunate students, civics instruction wasn’t just textbooks in the classroom, but also involved activities such as writing letters to the editor of the local newspaper, attending and writing about school board meetings, and formulating proposed legislative bills and debating the merits of the ideas behind them. While all 50 states require some form of instruction in civics and government, theory-based classroom instruction isn’t sufficiently supported by experience-based learning. One consequence is that only 25 percent of American students achieve the “proficient” standard on the National Assessment of Educational Progress Civics Assessment.
According to the National Education Association, until the 1960s it was common for high school students in the U.S. to take three different classes in civics and government. Unfortunately, these courses were slashed in the early 2000s, when the federal initiative called “No Child Left Behind” gave priority to “core subjects” like math and English, and to job preparation and standardized testing. In addition, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, only small proportions of teachers surveyed thought that school districts and parents would support teaching about politics in a course on government or civics.
The toxic nature of politics reflects the decline in education in civic responsibility, and promotes partisanship over patriotism. How can we fulfill our obligations to pursue the common good if we give priority to conflict over compromise? How can we discover the virtues of resolution over revolution if we don’t know the building blocks of our democracy?
In pursuit of a more perfect union, we should celebrate the four freedoms drawn from the Bill of Rights and articulated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. We should use them as templates when discussing national purpose, priorities and progress. These principles, together with schooling in civics and critical thinking, can help guide fulfillment of the promises contained in the Constitution to which our elected and appointed officials swear loyalty.
Robert Scott is president emeritus of Adelphi University.