The College Board – those responsible for the SAT and Advanced Placement tests – has identified two important areas of study that prepare high school students for success in college and beyond: computer science and the U.S. Constitution.
The first seems obvious in a world where almost everyone has a super computer in their pocket. But how will a 231-year-old document help kids in the 21st century?
Simple, really. Constitutional issues impact our lives every day. And constitutional knowledge, especially in 2019, has a transformative power that allows young people to understand how they fit into the world around them — and the role civic responsibility plays in American society.
I’ve seen it happen over and over during my dozen years of educating students about American rights and responsibilities rooted in the Constitution.
The Founding Fathers who gathered in Philadelphia bequeathed to us a representative form of democracy that functions best with an informed citizenry prepared to instruct the government, and not the other way around. Under our Constitution, individual rights are not granted by the government but protected by it. Without a working knowledge of our form of limited self-government, the people – from whom all power and authority emanate – can easily be left outside looking in.
Consider the recent power struggle between President Donald Trump and Congress over declaring a national emergency at the southern border. The result was a congressional rebuke – a rare show of bipartisanship – and a presidential veto. The immigration debate aside, citing a national emergency in order to reallocate funds is a complex constitutional issue.
Unfortunately, the debate was largely fueled by pure emotion, dictated not by constitutional nuances but by one’s feelings about the president. That’s not good enough, and it serves our country poorly.
We’re also regularly seeing emotion override free-speech protections, too often allowing a heckler’s veto to drown out unpopular opinions. Just this year at Portland State University, a controversial blogger speaking to a meeting of College Republicans was interrupted for more than an hour by a protester with a cowbell. Campus police stood by. At Villanova University two years ago, faculty interrupted sociologist Charles Murray with the accusation of hate speech, a nebulous term with no objective definition. Anyone who truly understands the Constitution’s First Amendment protections would know that the way to fight unpopular, controversial, or hurtful ideas is to engage and challenge with words and stronger arguments.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this, and reminded fellow ministers in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that nonviolent civil rights protesters “were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
Arming citizens with a deeper understanding of the constitutionally defined roles of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, as well as the Supreme Court decisions that help interpret those roles, will help raise the level of political debate to a standard worthy of the promise and ideals of the founding. It would also offer significant protection against the manipulation of the public by demagogues in politics and on cable news.
The College Board is right. The Constitution is key to our success. Only in teaching a deep, abiding love for freedom can we ever hope to create zealous defenders of the ever-expanding liberty that defines what is best about this country.
So tonight, dust off your copy of the Constitution and read it again. Then pass it on to a young person in your life.