I spoke today, to a classroom of young people at a private high school in San Diego. This is my second year as a speaker for the ACLU-sponsored “Constitution Day”. Last year, I presented to 60 middle school students in Chula Vista so I was looking forward to changing my presentation for a high school class. Here were some of my observations:
Natural Rights- students understand the concept of natural rights when you reduce it to the ridiculous. I posed this scenario to them: ” If Congress passed a law, which required the sun to rise in the west and then the President vetoed that law, but wrote an Executive Order which required the sun to rise in the north, where would the sun rise on January 1, 2015? ” They all agreed that the sun would continue to rise in the east and understood that natural phenomena preexist governments. They saw the folly (and hubris) of passing a law which would attempt to change the rotation of the planet’s axis.
Role of government-– most students think the government’s primary role is to keep us safe. When we read the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, all of them immediately agreed that the government’s primary role is to secure our individual rights.
Status Quo-– students place a tremendous amount of credibility in the status quo and consensus. While most agreed that the Founders’ declaration of natural rights was philosophically correct, they had difficulty connecting the folly (and hubris) of passing laws which violated those natural rights without due process.
Democracy— students think we live in a democracy rather than a Republic. A reduction to the ridiculous helped explain protection of the minority’s natural rights (I used the wolves and sheep joke). I explained that it took a loud and tireless voice for the minority, to guard against the tyranny of the majority. That makes some of them uneasy. When I argued that protecting the minority’s natural rights was virtuous because violating them was “unfair”, they became much more passionate and engaged.
Checks and Balances— Students think the “Elastic Clause” gives unchecked power to Congress. They see the conflict with the 9th and 10th Amendments and understood how the 16th Amendment opened the door, through the Elastic Clause, to tax 100% of an individual’s income. That didn’t sit too well with the students.
Students think that the President declares war and notifies Congress--that shouldn’t be surprising because, since the War Powers Act was passed, that is the practical process this country has used to wage war. Moreover, this country has been at war for most if not all of their lives. When it was presented as an issue of “fairness”, they were much more engaged. When the students realized that some of their friends might die in the near future, they thought that the War Powers Act should have been attempted as an Amendment to the Constitution (and ultimately, thought the existing constitutional process was more deliberative and wise). Students felt that trusting “one powerful person”, to make life and death decisions, was akin to living in a monarchy.
Bill of Rights– today’s students know the Bill of Rights cold. I was amazed at their ability to recite each and every Amendment in order. Some had difficulty defending the Amendments’ language when it contradicted modern public policy ( money in politics, firearms regulations, eminent domain, and warrantless searches) but the light blubs were glowing when they discovered those contradictions and didn’t care for them.
Infallibility of SCOTUS-– most students thought that the idea of Congress passing whatever they want and leaving it to the Supreme Court to decide if it was constitutional made sense. When described as an “omniscient and omnipotent council of “nine robed geniuses”, they got very uncomfortable.
Little knowledge of local government-– almost every student knew that Boxer and Feinstein were their US Senators but not one knew who their Assembly Member or State Senator was. When I explained that that was a byproduct of the 17th Amendment, and explained how it upset the representation model of our republican form of government, they seemed positively bemused.
Get the government you deserve— Most seemed really irritated that they would have to defend their liberty from usurpations by their government. This is where they seemed uneasy. (might be related to trust in the status quo).
1- Educators are doing a tremendous job at teaching students about the Bill of Rights. The discussions they’re having, about fairness and government overreach appear to be robust, engaging, and positive.
2- We’re not teaching the Articles, separation of powers, and checks and balances pletelycom. When I suggested that James Madision would recommend that our current San Diego Congress members should be hung, for abdicating their delegated powers, that got their attention.
3- Students are being taught about the Enlightenment thinkers’ influence on our Founding but the connection with the idea of limited government isn’t being made. We can do a better job explaining the practical benefits of Liberty and the misgivings and real life examples of how centralized government fails.
Civics educators, be they professionals in the classroom or volunteers, need to focus on two key concepts with the next generation: fairness and respect. Today’s students are motivated by those principles. When government is presented as an instrument of force, today’s students see it as a blunt instrument which has difficulty understanding how to be completely fair and respectful of minority thought. Thus, an opportunity to teach the value of limited government, and robust civil society, exists when the concepts of maximum fairness and maximum respect are the result of limited government.