On September 17, 1787, the U.S. Constitution was born in Philadelphia. As the delegates left the Constitutional Convention in Independence Hall, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government had been created. He famously responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Our nation is distinctive in that its origin and identity are defined by a document. Later, other emerging nations followed the U.S. pattern in determining national identity through a Constitution, but the U.S. was first. In 1787, we radically changed history and the process of nation building.
This week we celebrate the 234th birthday of the document that defines the United States of America. But our Constitutional Republic is under the greatest threat since the Civil War. One reason for the danger is an absence of systematic study of the Constitution, pre-school through grad school. We have to change that if we want to secure our democracy.
Our Constitutional Republic is under the greatest threat since the Civil War. One reason for the danger is an absence of systematic study of the Constitution. We have to change that if we want to secure our democracy.
From the start, the U.S. Constitution has been a living document, immediately amended 10 times, forming the Bill of Rights. In all, the Constitution has been amended 27 times, most recently in 1992, with a regulation about compensation of senators and representatives originally proposed in 1789.
Beyond amendments, the ongoing vitality of the Constitution has been assured through the Supreme Court decisions that have interpreted it. When I urge Constitutional study, I am including the amendments and the Supreme Court decisions. They are a package.
Pennsylvania Act 35, passed in 2018, requires Commonwealth schools to develop “quality civics programs,” incorporating “Civic Knowledge, Skills, and Actions.” That acknowledges an important fact: Children must learn that the United States is a nation of rules and responsibilities.
In classrooms, they can design constitutions and bills of rights. They can discuss the history of Supreme Court decisions, noting how each reflects core values as interpreted at the time. They can design projects to strengthen democracy. They can visit Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, which throughout the year offers brilliant online and in person programs. (One current podcast is “Can Governors Ban School Mask Mandates?”—a topic of tangible concern to masked Philadelphia students.)
On September 17, Constitution Day, admission to the Constitution Center is free of charge. I hope that many Philadelphia school groups avail themselves of the live and virtual events planned for that day.
Colleges and universities must not confine Constitutional study to political science. Throughout the decades in numerous discussions of what constitutes a core curriculum, I have always argued that the U.S. Constitution, including amendments and Supreme Court decisions, is definitively at the root of understanding American culture, society, and politics.
Yet, few higher education institutions incorporate the Constitution into the general education curriculum. When some try to do so, it’s sometimes considered controversial. In the 1980’s, the University of Texas at Austin made the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court decisions the center of its required first-year English Composition program. This freshman writing curriculum did not last long. The director was under so much pressure that she left for a university job in California.
Penn has declared 2021-22 the “year of civic engagement.” If all educational institutions incorporated this idea across the curriculum it would certainly help to heal our deeply divided nation.
In preparation for Constitution Day, a number of national higher education leaders are working toward a comprehensive movement for colleges and universities to “become an essential training ground for civic leadership and community engagement.” Their call to arms goes beyond Constitutional study to “high quality, equity-committed civic learning expected and experienced across post-secondary education.”
The current signatories include:
- Martha J. Kanter, CEO, College Promise; U.S. Under Secretary of Education (2009-2013)
- Lynn Pasquerella, president, Association of American Colleges and Universities;
- Yolanda Watson Spiva, president, Complete College America
- Robert E. Anderson, president, State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
Because these leaders see a strong connection between civic engagement and service learning, they have written to Congressional leaders of both parties with a request to endorse the inclusion of “a significant community-based civic or public issue project tied to the subject matter of the course.” (I recommend contacting Pennsylvania members of Congress with your expressions of support.)
Locally, the University of Pennsylvania has declared 2021-22 the “year of civic engagement.” If all educational institutions incorporated this idea across the curriculum it would certainly help to heal our deeply divided nation.
It’s interesting to note that Pennsylvania is one of only four states that chooses to call itself a Commonwealth, a British term that means commitment to the “common good” or “common wealth” of its citizens. Certainly, in Pennsylvania and emphatically in Philadelphia, we should celebrate Constitution Day with a personal promise to encourage Constitutional study and civic learning from infancy to longevity. It is only through education that we can respond to Benjamin Franklin’s challenge and keep our republic.
Header photo by Anthony Garand / Unsplash