Putting the US Constitution in its Place: A Broader Agenda for Civic Education

I put a draft chapter on Academia.edu in case anyone is interested in commenting. It is for a forthcoming volume edited by Carol McNamara about American citizenship.

The abstract:

Almost all American students are required to study the formal structure of the US government, and most perform fairly well on concrete, factual questions about the Constitution. But there is much more for competent citizens to learn. After I explore some valid reasons to include the Constitution in required curricula, I argue that the document provides a poor framework for civics as a whole, giving students a distorted view of the social world and failing to motivate them for ethical civic engagement. I conclude with a sketch of a curriculum in which the US Constitution has a place, but a fairly modest one.

Here is an excerpt:

… the Constitution is a distorting lens through which to view the social and political world. It is, after all, a charter for the federal government of the United States, albeit one that protects the rights of the states, associations, and individuals. It has much to say about the three official branches of the national government. It also mentions certain other institutions that seemed important to its 18th-century authors, such as the armed forces, militias, and privateers (“letters of marque”); religion and the press; lawyers (“Assistance of Counsel”); and associations and public assemblies. It does not mention any of the following components of our 21st-century system: political parties and lobbies; unions and organized professions (other than the law); permanent regulatory and national security agencies and the civil service; for-profit and nonprofit corporations and capital markets; or broadcast and digital media and the Internet.

Courts strive to apply constitutional principles to these modern institutions by expanding 18th-century categories. For instance, publicly traded, general-purpose corporations—which became common in the 19th century—are treated as examples of “associations” under the First Amendment.* I lack the competence to assess such rulings, but I think that the Constitution is problematic as a curricular framework. A curriculum based on that text will leave scarce time for analyzing most of the institutions that actually structure our lives, because they are unmentioned in the document.

While studying the First Amendment, students might be invited to think about the types of associations, religions, and equivalents of “the press” that exist in our time. But that is an odd and constraining way to investigate the structure and functions of Facebook, the Democratic Party, Sunni Islam, The Washington Post and its parent holding company, Black Lives Matter, the National Rifle Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and General Motors, to name just a few “associations.” A course on how our society works would go deeply into those organizations and give much less time to the question of how the US Constitution applies to them.

And another:

A heavy emphasis on the Constitution also implies a causal theory that is sometimes made explicit in k-12 classrooms. Students may take away the thesis that our society can be explained by the Constitution and the founders’ vision. The world we observe around is the one the founders “framed” for us.

That thesis is, at best, contestable. The organizations, norms, and systems of the United Kingdom and the United States today are in many ways similar, despite the fact that the USA has an idiosyncratic (some would say, “exceptional”) written constitution, whereas the British constitution is unwritten and has very different components: a monarch, an established church, a cabinet that is part of Parliament, and parliamentary sovereignty. Meanwhile, both the USA and the UK function very differently from the same countries a century ago. The reason is not that they have changed their constitutions profoundly but rather that urbanization and then suburbanization, industrialization and then deindustrialization, capitalism and then the welfare state, immigration and internal migrations, technology and global capital markets have transformed these two societies—more or less in parallel. The causal impact of the US Constitution on the USA seems limited.

*“Corporations and other associations, like individuals, contribute to the ‘discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas’ that the First Amendment seeks to foster.” Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U. S. 1 (2010), quoting Bellotti, 435 U. S., at 783. See also: on teaching the US Constitution; the Citizens United decision and the inadequate sociology of the US Constitution; liberals, conservatives, and love of the Constitution; is our constitutional order doomed?; and how to teach the constitution of cyberspace.