NOTE: Today is Constitution Day, which celebrates the signing of the Constitution by the Convention in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. In 2004, Congress passed a law requiring all government-funded educational institutions to provide instructional programs on the history of the American Constitution every September 17th.
We at SeeThruEdu.com commend Congress for its recognition that American democracy depends on a civic education whose core elements are our Founding documents. At the same time, we cannot help but note the irony of the federal government’s requiring the study of a document that, properly read, assigns matters relating to education not to the federal government, but to the states. This is not to say that the states, by and large, do an adequate job of civic education. On this subject, SeeThruEdu.com’s Editor in Chief, Thomas K. Lindsay, testified before the Texas Senate Higher Education Committee on September 12 of this year. An updated excerpt from his Senate testimony follows.*
On Democratic Education
Thomas K. Lindsay, Ph.D.
“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.”
“A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”
–Texas Constitution, Article VII (emphasis supplied)
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be.” –Thomas Jefferson
This fall brings both the start of another school year and a presidential election. But education and the democratic process are related by more than a mere accident of the calendar. As the quotations above demonstrate, the Founders of this country, as well as the drafters of the Texas Constitution, knew well that the perpetuation of our democratic way of life depends on a proper civic education for all citizens. Conversely, if we fail to restore to our universities the civic-education function with which they have been entrusted, in short order we shall lose the capacity for self-government on which our democratic freedoms ultimately depend.
We understand the relation between democracy education better when we reflect on the fact that, although nearly all students look to acquire employable skills in college, they—and we, their parents—also hope for something more, something higher, than job training alone. This hope is reflected in the distinction we draw between “vocational” and “liberal” education. Vocational education is oriented chiefly by what it might enable students to do with their education. Liberal education is oriented chiefly by what it might enable students to be by virtue of the education they have received. It is not accidental that the word “liberal” in “liberal education” has the same root as the word “liberty.” Liberal education is an education in and through liberty. In one important respect, Western civilization may be said to be built on Socrates’ premise that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” From this it follows that the highest liberty of which human beings are capable is the liberty of the mind, that is, freedom from unexamined assumptions, for example, swings in intellectual fashion, partisan politics, and ideology. Liberty at its peak is thus identical with the quest for truth. This quest not only defines a university’s deepest and highest purpose but also constitutes the best defense of its claim to academic freedom.
In the course of educating students, those in our universities come to recognize that the intellectual liberty they pursue depends on their being situated in a system of political liberty. That is, the cultivation of free minds simultaneously transcends and depends on the political freedom enshrined in the American Constitution. This dependence, along with the commitment to enhancing their students’ self-knowledge, should lead all universities to require all their students, regardless of major, to study in a comprehensive fashion the principled foundations of American democracy, beginning with the Founding documents—the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and The Federalist—as well as the other sources that both informed the Founding and reacted to it.
Such an approach is required if we are to fulfill both Jefferson’s and our state Constitution’s mandates. These mandates grow out of an awareness of the unique character of the American experiment in self-government. This uniqueness becomes clear on examination of the document that seeks to provide the justification for our very existence as an independent nation—the Declaration of Independence. Its claims are meant to be universal, addressed not only to King George III, but to a “candid world.” The Declaration announces that, in the new American order, blood, creed, and national origin—the constituents of citizenship throughout history—have been dethroned. Instead, U.S. citizenship entails adherence to moral and political principles the truth of which, says the Declaration, is “self-evident” to those who reason rightly. These principles, which form what has been called the “American theory of justice,” argue for human equality; for the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; for government established by popular consent; and for the right of the people to rebel should government cease to fulfill the purposes for which it was instituted. On this basis, the United States is more than a mere address, more than its history, and more than its demographics. It is, in its essence, an idea.
Yet how many of us today can recount the Declaration’s four self-evident truths? More crucial, how many of us have even a rudimentary grasp of the moral and intellectual foundations of the American theory of justice? For years, surveys have told us that the answer to both questions is, precious few. This cannot help but alarm those of us who believe, with the Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson, that no nation can expect to be “both ignorant and free.” But neither should we be surprised at the surveys’ results, says Derek Bok. The former president of Harvard University argues in Our Underachieving Colleges that American higher education can and must do better at providing the democratic or civic education on which he, Jefferson, and the Texas Constitution deem democratic health to depend.
Bok laments the fact that most colleges in the country today do not require even an introductory course in American government, the result of which, according to Department of Education statistics, is that only one-third of undergraduates ever complete such a course. With such a paucity of college courses, how are today’s students to become tomorrow’s leaders? How can we as a people fully defend what we do not fully understand? Bok adds a lesser yet legitimate point that the obligation to provide civic instruction is not limited to state-funded public institutions of higher learning: Because our private universities benefit from tax exemptions and federal financial aid, they too have a duty to provide civic education as part of their claim to providing a public good.
The issue becomes clearer when we survey the history of higher education in this country. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, required courses constituting a “Core Curriculum” of studies in American history and government, economics, and the history of Western civilization were attacked as irrelevant to the crises of the day. There followed a gradual withering away of such requirements. Forty years later, a study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), entitled, “The Hollow Core,” finds that Core Curriculum requirements have not been reinstituted in the overwhelming majority of our colleges and universities. In 2007, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), a non-profit educational organization, issued a study that finds Texas undergraduates fail at civics. Nationwide, 50 universities were surveyed, three of them in Texas—Baylor University, West Texas A&M, and the University of Texas at Austin. Nearly 1,000 Texas freshmen and senior students were given a 60-question test on American history and institutions.
Texas students at these institutions performed worse than their peers nationwide. More troubling still, the survey found that only 2.9 percent of students’ civic knowledge is learned in the college classroom. Texas’ comparative deficiency in knowledge of civics may be explained by another of the study’s findings: undergraduates at these three Texas universities were below the national average in the number of history, government, and economics courses taken during college.
But Texas is not alone in attempting to deal with this problem, which has been with us for some time. For example, in 2000, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni commissioned the Roper Organization to conduct a survey of seniors from the nation’s 55 best colleges and universities. The results were published in Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century. The survey found that “four out of five seniors—81 percent—received a grade of D or F on test questions drawn from a basic high school history curriculum.”
Texas Public Policy Foundation Recommendations:
With the view to enhancing fidelity to the letter and spirit of Article VII of the Texas Constitution, university regents and other administrators should be encouraged to institute reforms that place more focus on teaching students basic American history, government, economics, and Western Civilization, whether through a standardized test or more course options/requirements.
The study of American government should focus on our polity’s core principles of human equality and individual liberty. This focus should proceed through examination of a number of fundamental documents and major speeches. Questions regarding the meaning of human equality, inalienable rights, popular consent, and the right of revolution require study of the Declaration, along with Frederick Douglass’s 1852 address, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro,” and Chief Justice Taney’s infamous opinion for the majority in the Dred Scott case (where Taney denies that African-Americans have any rights that whites are bound to respect). Against Taney, Frederick Douglass’s and Lincoln’s scathing critiques of the Dred Scott opinion need to be taught.
The Declaration needs also to be scrutinized in its relation to the pro-woman’s-suffrage,
1848 Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” and the Reverend Martin
Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the National Mall in 1963. Students’ attention should be directed to these questions, among others: Why did Elizabeth Cady Stanton look to the form and substance of the Declaration of Independence in crafting the Seneca Falls Declaration? What did the Reverend King mean by asserting that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution constituted a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir”?
The U.S. Constitution, of course, must be taught to all Texas students. As both critics and admirers of the Constitution agree, there is no more authoritative commentary on that document
than The Federalist, the series of 85 newspaper essays defending and explaining the Constitution, written during the period in which the states were debating its ratification. Specifically, the issues of representation, minority rights, and the economics of democracy require examination of the Constitution and The Federalist, along with Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt’s writings and speeches on economic democracy.
To argue for the need to reform Texas public universities’ civics curriculum is not to deny its merits. Far from it. To its credit, Texas receives a “B” grade from ACTA on core curriculum requirements. However, our state can do better. For example, few of our public universities require the study of economics as well as a foreign language. In the ACTA survey of the “Big Eight” universities, for example, Texas is shown to require courses in Comparative Literature, Government and History, Mathematics and Science, but not Economics. In a global economy, we can ill afford to be indifferent to our students’ need to master economics. More important, the Founders of this country believed that history demonstrates that where there is no protection of property rights, there is no reliable protection of political rights. For both reasons, Texas students need to understand economics generally as well as its relation to politics. Accordingly, the Governor of Texas should appoint a commission to examine whether, how, and at what cost the core curriculum requirements at Texas public community colleges, colleges, and universities might be increased to incorporate economics.
The commission also should be directed to ascertain what percentage of the Texas higher education system’s core curriculum is available via the Internet. The commission should explore the question of whether opening access to these courses via the Internet could improve the civic education of Texas’ college students and citizenry.
Adopting the above measures will do much to move us back in the direction of full compliance with Article VII of our state Constitution. In the process, both education and democracy will be enhanced.
*Dr. Lindsay expands on this theme in the introductory chapter to his Investigating American Democracy (with Gary D. Glenn, Oxford University Press, 2012).