The Morality of Democratic Citizenship: Goals for Civic Education in the Republic's Third Century

R. Freeman Butts
Center for Civic Education
Calabasas, California

Chapter Two
Another Clear Mandate: Teach the Constitution

A. Learning from the Bicentennial

At the first meeting of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution in July 1985, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Chairman, stated that the occasion should afford an opportunity for "a history and civics lesson for all of us." In its first report to the three branches of the federal government on September 17, 1985, the Commission echoed the Chief Justice's view and stressed the educational purpose and the spirit of inquiry it would encourage for the three years of celebration from 1987 through 1989:  1 

The Commission regards the approaching commemoration as an historic opportunity for all Americans to learn about and recall the achievements of our Founders and the knowledge and experience that inspired them, the nature of the government they established, its origins, its character, and its ends, and the rights and privileges of citizenship, as well as its attendant responsibilities.
Among the means for achieving this civic education, the Commission gave special place to the study of history:

Studying history will enrich our understanding of the present and of the future by illuminating the reasons for failures and successes of the past. The history of the United States of America relates directly to the most precious human condition—freedom to think, speak, write, and create, and freedom to possess diverse political, social, and religious views .... As we look toward the future, it is particularly important that we ask what it was about our Founders' thinking and the culture, political system, and governmental structure that emerged from the Constitution, that produced two centuries of liberty under law.

While individuals may differ over answers to that critical question, it is safe to say that if we neglect to think about it, the probability of our constitutional freedoms being eroded or toppled is increased.

Numerous questions arise from time to time as to what policies our republic should fashion and what amendments to the Constitution, if any, should be added.... Because education of the public about the Founding period is uncommon, however, it is imperative that the Commission work—in conjunction with other institutions, including the media, to fill the educational gap that exists with respect to the origins of the American constitutional system.

The Commission left no doubt that it would be interested to help "close the educational gap" through schools and colleges as well as through the media and other private and public agencies. In an interview reported in The New York Times Magazine for September 22, 1985, the Chief Justice was quoted by Jane Nevins as making the point explicit: "This is an opportunity to give ourselves a history and civics lesson that hasn't been very well put across in the public education system...

A year later, in September 1986, the Commission reaffirmed the educational purpose of the Bicentennial commemoration when it reported on the first full year of the activities and projects it had sponsored or officially recognized. Chief Justice Burger said it again in his letters of transmittal to the President, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Judicial Conference of the United States:

From the outset we have recognized that this Commission's function, which covers three years, is very different from the planning for the 1976 celebration and the Statue of Liberty unveiling. We must try to dramatize the great events leading up to the Philadelphia convention, the difficult task of securing ratification and what all this has meant to secure freedom and opportunity for us now and for generations to come. Although the Bill of Rights was not adopted until 1791, we are treating it as part of the Constitution as, of course, it is. Essentially we have defined our objectives as "a history and civics lesson for all of us."  2 
I cannot possibly mention here the very large number or variety of projects that were initiated even before the Bicentennial Commission got under way or after its impetus began to take effect. My special interest is in those efforts that may bear some long­term effect on student understanding through the school curriculum. One of the earliest and most important of these was Project '87, sponsored jointly by the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association. The first stage of its work was to hold several conferences and award some 50 grants and fellowships for scholarly research on various aspects of the Constitution. Many of these papers have appeared in the Project's scholarly quarterly called this Constitution, The second stage dealing with teaching the Constitution in schools and colleges began in 1980. The first publication, on teaching about the Constitution in the secondary schools, appeared in 1981, and subsequently a volume containing 64 Lessons on the Constitution designed to be supplementary material for high school courses in American history, government, and civics was prepared in 1983 and published in 1985.  3 

Since 1985 a veritable bonanza of publications has appeared, many aimed at improving teaching and learning about the Constitution in schools.  4  In addition, an increasing number of organizations drew up plans for conferences, workshops, forums, and the development of exhibits and educational materials dealing with the Constitution. Among those that promised to have direct impact on the school curriculum were those sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Council for the Social Studies, and the Bicentennial Commission itself. (For additional scholarly and professional publications, see Chapters Three and Four.)

Perhaps the most extensive, long­term, and creative project conducted in the schools, one which is officially cosponsored by the Bicentennial Commission, is the National Bicentennial Competition on the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It was developed and is to be administered by the Center for Civic Education for the five-year period from 1987 through 1991. It has several unique characteristics:

The competition will be between school classes rather than between individual students.

The curriculum will emphasize the historical ideas and political concepts of constitutional government that the founders brought to the Constitutional Convention.

Special attention will be given to the Bill of Rights and the changes in constitutional thought that followed the framing and ratification.

A short but coherent text consisting of 31 lessons has been designed and field tested for a six-week unit adaptable for use in courses in U.S. history, government, or civics.

The competition will be held in every congressional district in the county.

Each year the program will involve classes in one or more school systems in each of the congressional districts in the nation in local, intermediate, and state­level competitions. At the end of each year, a national competition will be held in Washington, D.C., for winning classes from each state participating in the program.

Classes will prepare for the competition through the use of specially prepared study units on the Constitution and Bill of Rights designed to complement and be integrated into the required curricula in their schools at the upper elementary, middle, and secondary levels. The general goals of the units are to foster civic competence and civic responsibility among students through the development of a fundamental understanding of the Constitution and Bill of Rights and of the principles and values they embody, and an understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizens in our constitutional democracy.

The content of the instructional and testing programs is organized to focus upon:

At levels appropriate for student capacities, the units will include a study of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, The Federalist Papers, and other basic documents and scholarly works related to these periods of our constitutional history.

After completing their study, classes will compete as teams in demonstrating their knowledge and understanding of the Constitution. Each class will complete a qualifying multiple­choice test and then participate in a mock congressional hearing on a fundamental constitutional issue. The winning class at the congressional level will go on to the next round of the competition.

The paper and pencil multiple­choice test is designed to measure students' knowledge of significant persons, events, concepts, principles, values, and issues related to the Constitution; and capacity to identify and apply constitutional principles in specific situations.

Since participating classes will compete against each other as teams, the average score of a class on this test will be used rather than the scores of individual participants in the class. Thus, students in each class will be encouraged to study and work together so all can do their best on the test in order to reach the qualifying score necessary to participate in the hearing competition.

The congressional hearing, the second part of the competition, will be held before a panel of experts on the Constitution, drawn from the community. This hearing will be designed to assess students' capacities to develop, support, and evaluate positions on enduring constitutional issues.

Each class will be divided into six groups, each group to be responsible for responding to questions on one of the six units of the curriculum. The scores received by the groups on these presentations will be added together to arrive at a class total; the highest class total will determine the winning class for that round.

In successive rounds, entire classes will continue to participate as teams in the competition. The winning class in each congressional district will participate in a state­level hearing; and the winning class in each state will go on to a final national competition to be held in Washington each year of the bicentennial period.

The competition will be administered by the Center for Civic Education with the assistance of a National Bicentennial Competition Advisory Committee composed of representatives of the three branches of the federal government, noted constitutional scholars, and representatives of leading public and private sector organizations.

At the state level, the competitions will be conducted with the assistance of State Bicentennial Competition Committees appointed by each state's members of the United States Senate. At the local level within each state, the competitions will be conducted with the assistance of Congressional District Bicentennial Competition Committees selected from among their constituents by members of the United States House of Representatives.  5 

At the outset, I want to make it emphatically clear that I support and applaud the Bicentennial Commission's intention to make the Bicentennial a truly educational commemoration and a means to revitalize educational programs on the Constitution in our nation's schools and colleges. Indeed, I have written this book in the hope that it might contribute to that purpose. As early as 1974 I had urged (without much success) that the educational function be paramount in the Bicentennial of the American Revolution in 1976, and 1 have been urging~his view of the Bicentennial of the Constitution for the decade since then.  6 

But in the recent wave of enthusiasm for making the Bicentennial "a history and civics lesson for all of us," I wish to make two important points that we should keep in mind. First, we have a long and mottled history of enthusiasm for "teaching the Constitution," and we should learn what we can from that history. Second, we have had differences of opinion and deep-seated controversies about the meaning of the Constitution throughout the more than 200 years since its origin and formation: from the Federalists versus the Anti-Federalists, the "Rats" (for ratification) versus the "Anti-Rats" (against ratification), and strict constructionists versus broad constructionists to judicial restraint versus judicial activism and original intent versus principled interpretation. So how do we deal with those conflicting views in the schools? Whose Constitution shall we teach?

Continue to Chapter 2, Part B

1. Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution, First Report (Washington, D.C.: The Commission, September 17, 1985), pp. 5-9.  back 

2. Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution, Preparation for a Commemoration; First Full Year's Report (Washington, D.C.: The Commission, September 1986), p. ii.  back 

3. Howard Mehlinger, ed., Teaching About the Constitution in American Secondary Schools (Washington, D.C.: Project '87, 1981); and John J. Patrick and Richard C. Remy, Lessons on the Constitution (Boulder, Cole.: Social Science Education Consortium, 1985).  back 

4. For periodic listings of references, both books and articles, see the consecutive issues of the quarterly journal of Project '87, this Constitution, especially the Bicentennial Gazette in the Winter 1985 issue, pp. 38-40; the Fall 1987 issue, pp. 37-41; and the Winter 1987 issue, pp. 48-54.

See also Selected Bibliographies on the Constitution for High School Students, College Undergraduates, and General Adult Audiences, issued in 1986 by the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, 736 Jackson Place, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20503.

The monthly journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, Social Education, is an especially useful source for curriculum materials related to the Constitution; see especially the special section in the issue of September 1987, featuring articles by John J. Patrick, Richard C. Remy, and Mary Jane Turner's "Resources for Teaching about the Constitution," pp. 350-355. In addition, the Council issued a separate bulletin in 1987 entitled "Teaching about the Constitution," edited by Claire Keller and Denny Shillings.

Most of the above sources are directed at schools and colleges, as are the publications of the Constitutional Rights Foundation, Social Studies Development Center, the Social Science Education Consortium, and the Special Committee on Youth Education for Citizenship of the American Bar Association. The ABA's Public Education Division is especially active in addressing the general public on constitutional issues; see, e.g. Robert S. Peck, We the People; the Constitution in American Life (New York: Harry N. Abrams in cooperation with KQED and the A.B.A., 1987).  back 

5. The specially prepared text for use in the National Competition is Charles Quigley and others, We the People... do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America; a Secondary Level Student Text (Calabasas, Calif.: Center for Civic Education, 1987).  back 

6. See, e.g., R. Freeman Butts, "Public Education and Political Community," History of Education Quarterly, Summer 1974, pp. 165-183; "Foundations of Education and the New Civism," Educational Studies, Fall/Winter 1975, pp. 131-145; and The Revival of Civic Learning (Bloomington, Ind.: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1980).  back 

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