In April, 673 professors at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) signed a public letter attacking two bills before the state legislature. One of the bills, House Bill 96, requires teaching of the Constitution.
House Bill 96 bolsters civic education through creating a new American history/government graduation requirement for all the state’s public college and university students. But this, in truth, say the 673, “substitutes ideological force-feeding for the intellectual expertise of faculty.”
In making this charge, the 673, in truth, have taken it on themselves to publicly demonstrate that they don’t understand that civic education is among the primary purposes of higher education at public universities.
Consider what the 673 deem to be “ideological force-feeding.” The bill makes completion of a three-credit-hour course in American Government or American History a graduation requirement for UNC four-year as well as community college degrees.
When I read that this was considered beyond the pale by the 673, my first reaction was, “Huh?” My home state of Texas, since 1955, has required two three-credit-hour courses in American History and American Government. And for good reason. The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual Constitution Day survey reports that 44% of surveyed adults could not name all three branches of government; 25% of adults could not name even one branch of government; and 26% of adults could not identify even one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Does a civics-literate populace matter? It did to Thomas Jefferson, who observed that any nation that expects to be “both ignorant and free” expects “what never was and never will be.” And this is why states in the past required civics education at their public universities.
But all of this appears to be lost on the 673, despite their trumpeting their “intellectual expertise.”
It gets worse. The 673 bristle at the fact that the state legislature would dare to require that the American History/Government course include at least the following core texts:
- The U.S. Constitution.
- The Declaration of Independence.
- The Emancipation Proclamation.
- At least five essays from the Federalist Papers, to be chosen by the instructor.
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
- The Gettysburg Address.
Finally, the bill mandates a final exam that constitutes at least 20% of the final grade, and which tests students on the required texts listed above.
Having taught American Government in college for several decades, I have a question for the 673: How could you ever hope to teach this course well without including the above-mentioned required texts?
Requiring study of the U.S. Constitution, in American public universities, is “ideological force-feeding”? With this broadside, the 673 display their academic incompetence; for, teaching U.S. college students the Constitution has nothing to do with ideology—and everything to do with helping our students understand the foundations of their own way of life.
The late political scientist, Martin Diamond, made this point perfectly:
Many mistakenly think of the Constitution of 1787 as belonging to a rustic America now rendered remote by changes in American society. But think how remote 1787 is to other nations. The study of, say, modern Russian, Chinese, or Ghanaian government doubtless profits by some reference to the late eighteenth-century politics of those countries, but in 1787, Catherine the Great ruled in Russia, a Manchu emperor ruled in China, and Ghana did not exist. Catherine and the Manchu would find their countries incomprehensible today; in comparison, James Madison would be practically at his ease in modern America. The Constitution of 1787 is still the fundamental document of the American polity; it still embodies its fundamental principles; it still is the legal source of its basic institutions and powers, and it still influences the politics of their operation.
Accordingly, I cannot but concur with Diamond’s conclusion: “Despite enormous social and economic change, the constitutional system imparts to America a remarkable political continuity. Therefore, it is not mere filial piety but sound political science to study carefully the Convention at which the Constitution was framed.”
Without question, sound political science requires study of the U.S. Constitution and, with it, the Declaration, in which the American theory of justice—equality, inalienable rights, government by consent, and the right to rebel—is found. And to understand both better, The Federalist, especially essays #10 and #51, are essential. To see our principles of equality and freedom under fire, students can do little better than study the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
That the 673 deem this common-sense, foundational civic education to be mere “ideological force-feeding” tells us much more about these faculty than it does the proposed bill that they claim to detest.
Is their opposition due to hubris (“nobody tells us how to teach!”) or are these faculty, as some critics suggest, simply anti-American themselves and thus unwilling to “allow” students to hear the Founders speak in their own voice?
I can’t know the hearts and minds of these objecting faculty, so I won’t attribute to “anti-Americanism” their desire to deprive their students of knowledge of their own country. I can’t know that.
But what I can know are the requirements of sound political science in providing civic education. That the 673 fail to grasp these rudimentary requirements calls into question their self-advertised “intellectual expertise,” which they would wield like an ax against their opponents. But, in truth, it is the North Carolina legislature, not these faculty, who understand the necessity of teaching American Government/History.
For the sake of North Carolina’s students, let the legislature educate these educators.