We Might Need to Bring Back Civics Education

It's high time we brought back these classes...

Apparently, some legislators in South Dakota are pulling a political stunt by introducing a bill to require that all adults buy a gun upon turning 21. I say it’s a political stunt because the whole point of the exercise apparently is to say that Obamacare is unconstitutional, just like a an individual mandate to buy a gun would be:

Rep. Hal Wick, R-Sioux Falls, is sponsoring the bill and knows it will be killed. But he said he is introducing it to prove a point that the federal health care reform mandate passed last year is unconstitutional.

“Do I or the other cosponsors believe that the State of South Dakota can require citizens to buy firearms? Of course not. But at the same time, we do not believe the federal government can order every citizen to buy health insurance,” he said.

Well, what I find really disturbing about this is that a frikkin’ state legislator is so ignorant of the Constitution that he can make statements like this. We need to bring back civics education and do some sort of teaching on basic, fundamental constitutional law. Our nation is starting to suffer because of the low level of knowledge and education on the part of the citizenry on the most fundamental document that governs our political lives: the U.S. Constitution.

A Politician Ought To Know What Federalism Is

Fact is, South Dakota can require all adult citizens to buy firearms. That may be a terrible idea (because, well, it is), but there is nothing unconstitutional about such a law. Why? Because the Constitution is a restraint on federal power. In our system of government, the states are sovereigns; they may be restrained by their individual state constitutions, but the U.S. Constitution only limits them to the extent that their laws would run afoul of its specific mandates — such as the 13th Amendment.

Put another way, the federal government has enumerated powers specified in the Constitution, and in theory, any power not given to the Feds by the Constitution is reserved to the states. The states, on the other hand, have plenary powers and can do pretty much what it wants to do, unless prohibited by a specific clause of the Constitution.

Given the Second Amendment, there is no reason to think that a state cannot require its citizens to buy a firearm. That’s basic federalism. An elected official ought to know what basic federalism is. So it is profoundly disturbing that at least Rep. Wick (a fellow Republican) does not know that.

The People Ought to Know Basic Constitutional Law

Anytime some blog removes a comment that its proprietor finds objectionable, you get cries of CENSORSHIP! And various ill-educated morons start going on about freedom of speech.

Even regular citizens ought to now that the First Amendment applies to governments, not private individuals or companies. I can censor to my heart’s damn content, and it isn’t unconstitutional. People ought to know this. They should know that there is no Constitutional right not to be offended. There is no mention of the words “privacy rights” in the Constitution.

Some of the most contentious issues in modern American political life have to do with unsettled issues in Constitutional interpretation. If we’re going to have a debate about how we should tackle thorny issues through dialogue (vituperative as it may be at times) and debate (including some name calling as is natural in these things), then at least we should have some basic understanding of the Constitution and what it says and what it does not say.

People should know that the Constitution specifies a way to amend it, that it can be changed, that if we wanted a right to play video games, we can amend the Constitution to say just that. The sucker is a couple hundred years old, but it was never meant to be eternal or unchanging.

We All Should Agree On Some Fundamentals, No?

I started getting disturbed by this watching the NFL playoffs, and noticing that during the national anthem, many of the players on the sidelines were just standing there with their hands at their sides. A few knew that when the national anthem is being sung, you salute the flag — either with a military salute if you’re active or retired military, or with the right hand on your chest if you’re a civilian. Can we agree that no matter what our differences may be, we all should salute the flag during a national anthem? Non-citizens are exempt, of course, as we do not expect them to salute our flag.

Without civics education, it falls on the parents to teach their children these basic fundamentals of citizenship, of community. But given that we are a nation of immigrants, it’s awfully hard to say to someone newly arrived (legally!) in this country to teach their kids the basics of American citizenship. Given the importance of shared basic assumptions, shared basic knowledge, and shared basic behavior, I do think it’s time we bring back some heavy duty, real-deal civics education, including basic Constitutional law.

My suggestion? It’s likely too much, but here’s what I’d like to see:

  • 9th grade: Basic civics, such as our system of government, difference between a democracy and a republic, our founding documents, saluting the flag, etc.
  • 10th: Government 101, such as municipalities, county government, state and federal governments; executive branch, legislatures, and the courts; difference between police and military, etc.
  • 11th: Basic Constitutional Law, plus more on the separation of powers, and federalism
  • 12th: Law and Society, including rights and responsibilities of citizens and legal aliens; how laws and regulations are made, challenged, enforced; civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions; more advanced topics in Constitutional Law, including controversies such as privacy rights, extent of Commerce Clause, etc., introducing all sides of the debate.

I’m obviously not a teacher, but a lot of these things can be taught to high school students without dumbing it down too much. I just feel it’s time we somehow train the next generations on some fundamentals.

What do you think? Am I going too far, or just plain nuts, or absolutely on the mark here?


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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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17 thoughts on “We Might Need to Bring Back Civics Education”

  1. You’re dead on.

    Now – what three books would you recommend folks to read to get up to speed?

    As far as the intelligent debate, it’s less mentally taxing to debate with raised voices and emotions than on basic civic knowledge and interpretation.

    • Man, I don’t know about the books… especially for students. I mean, I think all adults should have read the Federalist Papers, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and the founding documents – Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But perhaps others could recommend better books for children?

  2. We don’t have to agree politically to agree that civic responsibility (and understanding the basic structure of American Govt) are critical. Student education is important – but facts get forgotten when they aren’t used. Maybe we need a basic skills test for those who propose running for office 🙂

    • I’d be all good with a basic civics exam for those who run for office… and for those who vote for those running for office. Something as simple as the test the INS administers to immigrants who want to become a citizen.

  3. Why don’t you just run for office, Rob?

    Civics in 9th grade was required when I graduated, now it is combined with Geography, and Social Studies. My husband teaches the mess, and hardly has time to touch on any of the subjects.

    I hear it all the time from our Elected Officials calling us a Democracy. We are NOT a Democracy we are a Republican form of Government, (although we act like one) There is a huge difference in those definitions and it urks me when I hear them misused by those that should know better.
    Constitutional principals should be taught early on, but it is my fear the majority of Public Teachers would not get it right. So parents should do it.

    I used the Christian History of the Constitution by Verna M Hall. Published in 1966, she embarked on the research. Each religion has a form of gov’t, but Christianity astonished the world when it established self government.

    We spend hours in board meetings, creating mission statements. What was the mission statement of America? What is it now? When you can answer that you find how far we have drifted.

  4. I taught 9th Grade Civics before I got into web sites and technology. So Missy, if you honestly believe that the majority of Public School teachers trained to teach social studies will get it wrong (and I know many who do), how in the world do you expect the majority of parents to get it right? I do agree that parents should be involved, but it should supplement what is in the classroom. This includes parents discussing what children learn from their teachers, and whether it reflects the values those parents want to instill in their home. It’s OK to challenge students to question what they are being taught, and parents who encourage an intelligent, respectful discourse on that in the home are being good parents. My father always advised me on what his opinions were on what I was being taught in the classroom, and what I should seriously question. (He has a PhD in History, and arguably did know more than my teachers). And he did so in a respectful manner, advising me to always engage with my teachers in a respectful way. This was at a time when Texas public schools were blurring the line separating church and state, so these discussions were important in our home.

    I agree with Rob in how little importance we give to civics and government education in our schools. But we also have to make sure that the political agendas of school boards and state legislatures are not controlling the content of what is in the classroom. Good teachers (of which there are too few) will teach the facts, while encouraging healthy discussions about interpretive views on the meanings of our federal documents, policy and court decisions. And this process also teaches our citizens to respect the opinions of others, even if you passionately disagree. That is something else we don’t seem to be teaching very effectively.

    • What you said, Rich: “But we also have to make sure that the political agendas of school boards and state legislatures are not controlling the content of what is in the classroom. Good teachers (of which there are too few) will teach the facts, while encouraging healthy discussions about interpretive views on the meanings of our federal documents, policy and court decisions.”

      Any class on a topic like civics would naturally spark debate and disagreement; to the extent the teacher can maker his/her own biases known, but demonstrate how one handles oneself in a discussion about these things properly, that would be even better.

  5. Rob,

    Thank you for another fascinating post and one that I could respond to at far longer length, but I’ll be brief. Your description of the problem is dead on. The understanding of government, its purposes and its legal foundations are completely absent in wide swaths of the public. As for how to mitigate this problem, two comments:

    1. As someone who has a law background and is exposed to public school systems both as a parent and as the spouse of a public school teacher, I think it would be great to have a significant commitment such as you describe. That said, I would love to see an “out of the box” approach to the instruction: less or no textbooks and attorneys either acting as the sole or primary instructor or acting as a resource to a more traditional teacher.

    2. So much of the instruction even through high school has a focus on the idea that there is only one correct answer. For students to fully grasp the constitutional law and law and society areas that you mention, they need to be essentially broken of this mindset and be able to make more complex, critical analyses of the subject matter. So I’d suggest combining what you have as the first two years of material in to one year taught at the 9th grade level and then a year in 10th grade of instruction on more general philosophy.

    One final comment: With respect to Rich’s comment about the political agendas of school boards and legislatures, if those and other public bodies simply made their top priority getting the best teachers, there is very little that the boards and legislatures could do from their meeting rooms to affect the quality of our children’s education.

  6. Here in lies the dilemma…the majority of teachers are good. There is a minority in the districts that need to go, but because of the Unions they are not able to let them go.

    The curriculum is mandated by a hierarchy, starting with the outcomes they want. In MI if you are in a district that is not performing you are put on probation to get your test scores up. The state will cut off funding and you will have to combine with a District doing better.

    The head of the Department of that Subject in this case since we are talking about History, determines the text book and the outcomes (tests) the students have to use and take.

    There is so much to overall in Education that it is impossible to comment on it all here. That is why I believe parents who understand the Constitution and American Exceptionalism must talk about it in the home.

    In other words like Ronald Reagan use to say it is passed down in the homes.

    Parents who understand the Principals must get involved and serve, then run for school board.

    • Personally, Mark, I wouldn’t want the government teaching my kids about ethics. I’ll take care of that, thanks. But civics IS about government, about becoming a citizen of a nation. I think that’s within the purview of, and the responsibility of, the government.

      • Very very true that the government is not the best choice to teach ethics. I just think that some children may never be taught anything about ethics otherwise. Same with financial management as Rob Rule pointed out. And probably many other topics…..

        Should a well rounded education be more than just the 3 R’s?

        Sorry for getting off the topic of civics, which I agree is important and should be taught.

  7. Rob, great post. As a history grad and as a person married to a resident alien, it pains me to see how much ignorance there is regarding a document that is only about 7,500 words (including all 27 amendments). But allow me to add that in addition to expanded civics training, that we teach our children (and, wishfully thinking, the rest of our population as well) about how to properly manage finances. At least in most schools each person gets a semester of civics – while that’s not much, it exceeds the amount of personal financial management training that kids get in school – unless they take an elective course to receive the information, and really…how many 16- and 17-year olds are mature enough to choose that over shop, or sports, or additional fine arts classes? After all, we can erase many of the sins of our predecessors who have left us bad law by overturning it in the courts or simply amending/abolishing/re-writing it, but we are digging a considerable, unavoidable hole when we live on borrowed funds – both personally and as a government. If people understood – truly understood – the freedom that they could gain by living life paid for by income-producing assets gained by investing wisely – and eliminate the robbing of Peter tomorrow to pay Paul today – we would be far richer, happier and more stable as a result.

  8. What an interesting departure from Real Estate. I think you describe the problem with the South Dakota representative very well; although don’t you betray your conservative (re: libertarian) views by mandating your view of Civics upon the nation? Well, yes, you do and you can because it is your view and not that of the government(s)…A real Gordian knot here; as government has the reach to right this educational shortcoming within our nation but is constrained by the states from implementing it (check out your TX school text book re-write of history/civics). Great discussion though (and note to Missy, no teacher’s unions were harmed in the production of this comment)..

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