Mighell: Require Constitutional Study in Public Schools

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The Constitution is still relevant today. We should expose more people to it, so they can make up their minds how they want it to be applied, rather than addressing government with minimal knowledge of how it works.

I count myself immeasurably fortunate that I attended a high school with teachers who made an effort to invest in my education. Years later, many of them still stand out in my mind. Mr. Shipp, for instance, was a sharp-dressing, sharp-witted man who constantly sipped yerba mate tea. I attribute much of my love for American government and politics to his high school civics course.

Before every class, we read a primary source that in some way contributed to modern American political thought – Locke, Hobbes, Bastiat, de Tocqueville, the Federalist Papers. Mr. Shipp then led us in a Socratic dialogue, engaging the ideas in the text and examining how they formed our institutions of government.

Over and over, our class discussion returned to the Constitution of the United States, the document that created these institutions. By examining its text closely in the light of great authors, I came to a better understanding of our country’s distinctive nature. Every clause spoke to the concerns of our nation’s Founders, and the solutions they had devised, with an elegant balance of powers at their center. It was fascinating.

My developing interest in the Constitution motivated me to learn more about America and its government. In college, I scoured the course listings for classes that centered on constitutional law and America’s governing principles. I ended up majoring in the subject.

I recognize that I represent an extreme case of Constitutiophilia, so I may be biased when I say that I consider the Constitution to be the single most essential document that every American should study. But I would go even further. I believe that constitutional study should be required for all high school and college students, because the Constitution contains the principles and structure underlying America itself.

Civic education in America is in crisis. According to a 2016 publication from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, most recent college graduates do not know the term lengths for Congressmen, the contents of the First Amendment, or who wrote our founding documents. One in ten believes that Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court.

The cause of these alarming trends is obvious: only 18% of colleges and universities require a single survey course in American history or government before graduation.

Our educational system produces citizens who are profoundly ignorant about the history and government of the nation they live in. Is it any wonder that their opinions about it are so confused and disordered?

There’s a straightforward solution to this social problem. If we need more education about our government, why not begin with the laws that established it?

Within the Constitution lie the facts about how our federal government operates, and those facts evince clear intentions about the way power was supposed to be allocated in America. Reading the Constitution provokes important questions. Why did the Framers divide the legislature into two parts? Where does the Constitution mention the Supreme Court? Why didn’t the Constitution originally include the Bill of Rights? Have the amendments made the Constitution better suited to govern us, or worse?

Beyond its thought-provoking nature, study of the Constitution would grant high school and college students early exposure to the landmark decisions of constitutional law. The Supreme Court’s most famous cases contain careful analysis and clarification of the Constitution’s nuances. In addition, the Federalist Papers provide insight into the original intentions that the Framers had when constructing the Constitution. Incorporating these secondary sources into constitutional study would allow students to better form their opinions about our laws and government.

A true survey of the Constitution would avoid considering this seminal document only when it becomes historically relevant, or studying certain portions to the exclusion of others. For instance, while the Commerce Clause and Fourth Amendment have gained new relevance since the modern era began, a full understanding of them requires examination of their characterization prior to their current construal.

Despite the myriad benefits of constitutional study, the federal government should not pass a law mandating it – because the Constitution itself does not give the federal government any power over public education. Rather, as per the Tenth Amendment, individual states ought to mandate a comprehensive survey of the Constitution for all students at any public high schools and colleges that they fund.

The Constitution is still relevant today. We should expose more people to it, so they can make up their minds how they want it to be applied, rather than addressing government with minimal knowledge of how it works.

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Connor Mighell is a third-year law student at The University of Alabama School of Law with an undergraduate degree in Political Philosophy from Baylor University. He is a contributor at Merion West and the curator of “Five in a Flash,” a weekday newsletter. His work has been featured at The Federalist, SB Nation, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Hill, The Dallas Morning News, and The New Americana. He may be found on Twitter at @cmigbear.

Connor Mighell is a third-year law student at the University of Alabama School of Law with an undergraduate degree in Political Philosophy from Baylor University. He is a contributor at Merion West and the curator of "Five in a Flash," a weekday newsletter. His work has been featured at The Federalist, SB Nation, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Hill, The Dallas Morning News, and The New Americana.

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