In an age when the nation is deeply divided politically, those who teach about the U.S. Constitution are on the front lines of guiding their students to a deeper understanding of civics.
“With my seniors, current events are an issue every single day,” said Elizabeth Schley, an AP Government and Politics teacher at Basha High School in Chandler, Ariz. “At the beginning of the semester, they thought they were just going to sit here and argue for the entire hour. But that’s not what we do.”
What Schley and her students do is analyze the issues, whether they be as old a concept as judicial review from the 1803 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Marbury v. Madison or as fresh as the headlines, which recently were President Donald Trump’s criticism of a retired U.S. Navy Seal leader.
“I tell them we’re not going to bash or praise the administration,” she said. “We’re going to look at it as political scientists.”
Teachers of civics and leaders of groups that facilitate such instruction agree that the current political climate may be doing as much to rekindle interest in the Constitution and its principles as lamentations over surveys showing that most Americans cannot identify the three branches of government. Some experts also make the case that studies of the document could also offer a path to finding common ground around the principles that undergird the country, even as historical debates simmer.
“Because we live in a time that politics is very polarizing, the level of engagement is much higher,” said Tim Rodman, a government teacher at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., just outside the nation’s capital. “Students really have an opinion.”
Lawrence Paska, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, said teachers do not see their role as telling students what to think about hot-button political issues, but to put things in context and relate political controversies to constitutional principles.
“All students are walking around in the current world,” he said. “They are exposed to more sources of information than ever before. We’re flooded with information, and it consequently becomes more urgent to put that information in context.”
David Bobb, the president of the Bill of Rights Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based educational group that provides programs for teachers and students, said, “Polarization has become a thing in high schools, but not in the same way as for those mired in the thick of politics.
U.S. public education is rooted in the belief by early American leaders that the most important knowledge to impart to young people is what it means to be a citizen. If America is experiencing a civic crisis now, as many say it is, schools may well be failing at that job. Look for more pieces from our Citizen Z project in the weeks and months ahead.
“The kids feel the tension,” he added. “The teachers live it.”
Some analysts worry about whether a form of political “tribalism” is damaging the constitutional ideal of a national identity. Writing in the Atlantic magazine in October, Yale Law School professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld said, “When we think of tribalism, we tend to focus on the primal pull of race, religion, or ethnicity. But partisan political loyalties can become tribal, too. When they do, they can be as destructive as any other allegiance.”
Americans on the left and the right now view their political opponents “not as fellow Americans with differing views, but as enemies to be vanquished,” Chua and Rubenfeld write. “And they have come to view the Constitution not as an aspirational statement of shared principles and a bulwark against tribalism, but as a cudgel with which to attack those enemies.”
Staci Garber, who teaches U.S. constitutional principles to high school students in her Global Studies class at Caravel Academy, a private school in Bear, Del., has been conscious of the threat of tribalism in recent years.
“Our campus is deeply divided,” she said. “We have some very liberal students and some very conservative students. We have some Trump-type conservatives, and there are these deep divisions.”
Like other teachers, she strives to keep classroom discussions civil. She teaches the Constitution in the context of the European Enlightenment era.
“It’s surprising the range of philosophies that come out,” Garber said. “They’re always surprised when they find common ground on things.”
In Garber’s classes, recent topics have included the meaning of the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment and the reported questioning of the validity of the Marbury decision by Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker during a 2014 interview, when he was not in government.
In Rodman’s AP Government and Politics class at Walter Johnson High, Whitaker figured in a different debate as students became engaged over Federalist Paper No. 70 and the role of the executive.
“We looked at Article II [of the Constitution] and the role of the president’s powers,” Rodman said. “My students wondered how that translates to today and how the president uses executive privilege, and whether the president’s appointment of [Whitaker as] the acting attorney general over Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was proper.”
That’s an issue dividing legal scholars, to say nothing of high school students. Rodman, like other teachers, stressed that his role was to guide students in how to learn about the Constitution, not to offer his own views.
“I tell them this isn’t about me,” he said.
Nicholas Hegge, who teaches American government and American history at Logan View High School in Hooper, Neb., said he found it important to get students “hooked on the Constitution.” He does that, among other ways, by teaching about recent Supreme Court cases that may have relevance to their lives. One recent case he taught was Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Human Rights Commission, in which the court held that a state civil rights panel violated the rights of a baker who had refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple.
“My students also really loved the Carpenter case from last term, about the Fourth Amendment and the future of digital privacy,” Hegge said, in reference to Carpenter v. United States, in which the court ruled the government’s acquisition of a suspect’s cellphone location data was a search under the Fourth Amendment and would generally require a warrant.
Some Supreme Court justices would likely be pleased that their own decisions are being used to rekindle interest in the Constitution.
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, 88, recently announced publicly that because she is battling dementia, she must withdraw from public life, including from her passion since retiring in 2006: improving civics education.
“It is time for new leaders to make civic learning and civic engagement a reality for all,” O’Connor said in a public letter on Oct. 23. “It is my great hope that our nation will commit to educating our youth about civics, and to helping young people understand their crucial role as informed, active citizens in our nation.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor answered O’Connor’s call by joining the board of the group O’Connor founded, iCivics.
“We are really taking Justice O’Connor’s vision now a step further,” Sotomayor said in a recent interview with Education Week. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch has also raised his profile in support of civics.
Kerry Sautner, the chief learning officer at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, said that at her institution, “the running joke is that the Constitution hasn’t been talked abut this much since 1787,” the year it was drafted in Independence Hall, steps away from the center, which was created by Congress in 1988 to disseminate nonpartisan information about the founding document.
“Civic education is going gangbusters,” Sautner said.
The National Constitution Center is one of many groups, including the Bill of Rights Institute and the National Council for the Social Studies, that provide resources and workshops for teachers.
Exploring Historic Documents
Another resource is the National Archives, where the originals of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are on display, along with the Declaration of Independence and a bunch of other historical documents.
On a recent day, about 20 7th graders from the Center City Public Charter School-Capitol Hill campus, in Washington, arrived to participate in an hourlong educational program.
The students took their turns examining the founding documents in the classical rotunda.
“The documents are so faded, you know they’ve been around for a long time,” said student Hasan Carter.
Carter and his classmates then went on a mission through the Archives’ exhibit hall, which highlights documents tied to one constitutional right or another, such as an old patent and a petition for women’s suffrage.
“For this program, we’re working with students who frequently feel disenfranchised and that their voice doesn’t matter,” said Christiana Hanson, an education coordinator at the Archives. “They can’t vote yet. But they live in D.C. Capitol Hill and the government are their backyard. We want them to become better-informed citizens.”
Calvin Johnson, the teacher of these 7th graders, said he is just starting lessons about the Constitution, so having his students see the documents for themselves is a good way to frame the discussions to come.
“Now we’ll do a deep dive into the documents of the Constitution,” he said. The Center City charter school network emphasizes advocacy, and he has already had discussions with his students about students’ free expression rights in the wake of the student activism that followed the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
“They start out with an abstract view of current events,” Johnson said of his students. “Through discussion, we are able to make connections to their lives. They get excited when they realize that they are the ‘people’ in ‘We the People.’ ”
Coverage of civics education and youth voters is supported in part by the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship Program.
A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2018 edition of Education Week as U.S. Constitution Still a Timely Text for Civics