In Janell Cinquini’s constitutional law elective, her high school students wrestle with the same question that has shaped scholarly debates and the contours of U.S. Supreme Court cases over the centuries: Should the Constitution be seen as fixed, having the same meaning as when it was written? Or can it be interpreted differently over the years, as our country changes?
The conversations are lively. Cinquini’s class at Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego, Ore., has its fair share of students who favor both perspectives of that key question: budding originalists, and those who lean more toward living constitutionalism. Some of her students see the document as “almost sacred,” Cinquini said. “Others are like, ‘It’s 2022; the founders got all these things wrong; we need to make these big, sweeping changes.’”
In Cinquini’s classroom, students dive deep into these questions of constitutional interpretation, learn what the document actually says and what it doesn’t, and investigate the process of getting an amendment passed. Her goal is to make the Constitution relevant, Cinquini said: “They need to know why it matters today, and to them.”
That’s the charge that many social studies teachers across the country will take up this week in advance of Constitution Day, which commemorates the signing of the document on Sept. 17, 1787. Under a lesser-known federal mandate, any educational institution that receives federal funding is required to teach about the Constitution on the day the holiday is celebrated.
The times provide a lot of material. This past spring, a conservative-majority Supreme Court handed down a series of decisions that watchers say have brought seismic shifts in interpretation of constitutional law. Among them: It struck down a New York law restricting concealed carry, expanding rights to bear arms; sided with a high school football coach who led prayers at the 50-yard line; and overturned Roe v. Wade, calling into question prior constitutional interpretations of a right to privacy.
Even as some precedents are reversed and new ones are set, commentators on the right and the left have both lamented how the country’s polarized politics and intransigent Congress have made it that much more difficult to imagine actually amending the text of the document. It’s an issue that Cinquini sometimes worries about, too.
Her students are “looking at a super dysfunctional congressional process,” she said. “There’s not a lot of compromise going on. I think they’re more likely to think the system’s in need of a lot of work.”
Teachers say they try to focus on how the document shapes students’ lives—while leaving room for their classes to discuss what they may see as an imperfect document that governs an imperfect system.
It’s important to teach students the ideals and goals behind the Constitution, even while acknowledging the ways that the document hasn’t always protected those ideals for all Americans, said Patrice Frasier, the social studies department chair at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore.
“How can you hold your government accountable if you don’t know how it’s supposed to work?” she asked.
The Constitution helps students understand current events—and their own rights
Knowing how the government is supposed to work starts with understanding what, exactly, is in the Constitution. Several teachers said they often start by clarifying misconceptions.
“A lot of times, they’ll tell me what’s in the document, and I’m like, ‘That’s not there,’” Cinquini said.
For example, a lot of her students think that the Constitution enshrines the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (It doesn’t; those ideals are listed in the Declaration of Independence.) Or, an issue more recently in the news—some students have asked Cinquini whether the Constitution requires presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns. (It doesn’t. This is just a tradition.)
Grounding students in this foundational knowledge helps provide an entry point into current events, said Debra Warunek, a U.S. History and government teacher at Green Run Collegiate in Virginia Beach, Va.
Last school year, Warunek’s students were glued to the Supreme Court nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson. In part, they appreciated the rhetorical drama: They liked watching how Jackson responded, “very diplomatically,” to questioning from Republican senators, Warunek said.
But they could also make connections between what they’d learned about constitutional interpretation and some of the lines of questioning directed at the then-nominee, Warunek said. At home, her students would look at what commentators on social media had said about Jackson’s responses—like her refusal to define “woman” when asked by Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn—and discuss their thoughts the next day in class.
“The conversations that my kids had blew me away,” said Warunek. “That was probably the best week of my teaching career.”
But familiarity with the Constitution isn’t just good for understanding the news—it can have real-life implications for students, said Frasier, the Baltimore teacher.
She emphasizes to her students that the Fifth Amendment, for example, gives them the right to remain silent if they’re stopped by the police. “It’s important for them to understand what their rights are every single day,” Frasier said. “People take advantage when they think you don’t know.”
Teenagers, especially, are interested in the ideas about fairness that the Constitution raises, said Matt Gorsuch, a social studies teacher at George Moody Middle School in Lakeside, Va.
His middle school students always want to get into the details of the Bill of Rights—like what kinds of speech are protected and which aren’t, he said. They’re also curious about how “fair” the Constitution is in comparison to the guiding legal frameworks of other countries.
Gorsuch does an activity with the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, a list by the international advocacy organization that ranks countries according to eight metrics, including things like constraints on government powers, fundamental rights, and criminal justice. The United States ranks 27th out of 139 countries.
With his students, Gorsuch talks about what factors in the Constitution and the country’s system of government check the right boxes, and which cause the United States to lose points. Some kids are surprised that the country isn’t ranked right at the top; others think it makes sense.
And some come away with the idea that “maybe this document still needs to be tweaked,” Gorsuch said, “because we’re not fitting on all the metrics.”
‘If you wanted to change something in America, what would it be?’
Students need to understand how the Constitution works if they want to be part of making these changes—and in order to understand how changes have been made in the past, said Kerry Sautner, the chief learning officer at the National Constitution Center.
The organization recently released Constitution 101, a high school curriculum that teaches students about the historical and philosophical foundations of the document and explores how it’s shaped American life over time.
“We really want to make sure that kids not only understand how it was written, how it works, what are the tests of it, but also what are the gray areas and how do they play a part in that,” Sautner said.
The curriculum goes beyond the text of the document itself to investigate how different generations of Americans have used its principles to argue for expansion of its rights and protections. For example, there’s a lesson designed around David Walker’s Appeal, a series of anti-slavery articles written by a free Black man in 1829. The lesson explores how his arguments draw on ideas of popular sovereignty, rule of law, social contract theory, and natural rights, Sautner said. (These supporting documents, including the Appeal, were curated jointly by constitutional scholars on opposing sides of the ideological spectrum.)
Frasier talks with her students in her African American studies classes about how the Constitution has expanded civil rights for Black Americans over time. But she also explains how that wasn’t always the case. She and her students discuss the document’s Fugitive Slave Clause, and explore the idea that just because something was in the Constitution, doesn’t necessarily make it “right.” The Fugitive Slave Clause was legal, Frasier said. “But clearly it’s not moral.”
Amendments and change are also a point of conversation in Gorsuch’s class. It’s the focus of his usual Constitution Day lesson. He poses this question to his class: “If you wanted to change something in America, what would it be?”
Last year, most of his students’ answers clustered around three themes: fairness and equality, universal health care, and free college.
He has his students work in pairs to write a short proposed amendment that they would add to the Constitution, which would seal their issue into law. They also talk about the difference between a federal law and a Constitutional amendment, and what changing the document requires.
But Gorsuch thinks that the process can feel distant for middle school students. “Since they’ve been alive, there hasn’t been a state convention process where the states have voted on an amendment” to the U.S. Constitution, he said.
When students that feel like amending the Constitution would face a steep uphill battle, “they’re not wrong,” said Sautner. The framers intentionally made the process difficult, she said. But it’s important to focus on the social and political factors surrounding an attempt to pass an amendment, she said, not just the legal process.
Constitution 101 includes a lesson on amendments that explores the history of ones that were eventually added to the document. Amendments with bipartisan support fare better, as do those that attempt to fix a structural issue, Sautner said. “The kids can then pull out ideas, and say, ‘To get an amendment passed, what is the perfect storm?’”
Students can see how the process is supposed to function, and make their own judgments about whether the government is living up to—or falling short of—its ideals, Sautner said. “That’s how the Constitution actually works in your life.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2022 edition of Education Week as How ‘Fair’ Is Our Government? Teachers Posed Big Questions For Constitution Day