While serving in the United States Army in the early 1990s, I had to prepare for the much-anticipated promotion board for sergeant. Like many, I had bought a study guide to help me prepare for the range of questions that I could expect to be asked. Besides the obvious questions on military tradition, job-related skills, and the history of my unit, the study guide had a section devoted to what it called “general knowledge citizenship.” As I prepared for the promotion board using the study guide, I began to understand how much about the Constitution of the United States I simply did not know. I prided myself in being a high school graduate and even had thirty-four hours at a local college before joining the Army. Although I considered myself as educated, I was far from being a member of the educated electorate our founding fathers said must exist to protect the Constitution and the national government it defined.
Now, a little over twenty years have passed since those days and I still am learning about the conditions that led to not only our national independence but the creation of our constitutional republic. As I prepared for my career as a college/university instructor, I began to read the writings of Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Hamilton, Jay, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Edmond Burke. Not only did I truly begin to study the Constitution, but I also began to learn of the philosophy behind it. What I began to learn I began to pass on to others around me – at church, where I worked, and even in conversations with neighbors. When I began teaching college I did make a promise to myself and to this nation that I would teach what I learned in an apolitical manner, but with passion and zeal. I decided early in my academic career that I wanted not only to be part of the educated electorate but to teach others to understand our system of government.
Why there isn’t an educated electorate today
We do not have an educated electorate in the sense meant by our founding fathers. For nearly all of my formal education, I was taught this meant that education should be a function of the national government; however, this is not what is meant by those that wrote the Constitution. What they hoped would happen is that the common citizen would posses certain skills, such as reading, critical thinking, and would be guided by a moral foundation when making a decision at the ballot box. They had hoped that the citizenry would be leery of political factions and would select candidates for public office based only on what they believed would best serve their community, state, or nation, depending on the political office sought after. For those men that drafted the Constitution the idea of voting for a politician simply because of their party affiliation was simply reprehensible. According to the founding fathers one of the key elements to having an educated electorate was a free press. How else was the average citizen going to learn about the policy platforms of the candidates, the issues facing the nation, and which candidate has the best interests of the nation at heart. The idea that the American press would ever choose sides within the political battles of this nation was simply something unfathomable. The press had to remain unbiased, unregulated, and free.
For the last sixty years there have been political candidates, foundational shifts, and even destructive domestic and foreign policies pursued that not only have no benefit for the average American citizen, but are dangerous to the stability of the nation. While many conservatives make the assertion that Mr. Obama has been dangerous to our constitutional republic, their short-sightedness into the conduct of both parties of the last sixty years is all too obvious. Presidents from both parties, Congress under the leadership of both parties, and the media have violated the trust placed within them by the American public. With the lack of a sufficient civics education plan, nearly three generations of Americans have graduated from public education with numerous disastrous ideas about our system of government, about our Constitution, and even where they fit into the equation. I have heard more than a handful of people tell me that they simply are not into politics and simply go on with whatever they hear on television or from their favorite entertainers. Last semester, I had a student tell me that she was not smart enough to become involved in politics and simply trusted the Democratic Party to look out for her best interests. This is not the educated electorate our forefathers said our nation needed to preserve liberty. To me, it doesn’t matter if the lack of an educated electorate is intentional and by design or simply just the results of an inefficient educational bureaucracy, but we have real problems when people – when the American voter – does not understand how the system they participate in through the election process is supposed to work.
Reviving the educated electorate
I am often asked if I have any hope of recovery for the nation since the Obama administration. I am always quick to point out that the current administration is not solely responsible for the problems faced by our nation. There are two reasons why this has happened and why it continues to happen. The electorate – the American voter – is ill-equipped to hold the American politician to the standards demanded by the Constitution. Not only do many Americans not understand the constraints placed on who is eligible to run, the Constitution also prescribes the means to remove political leaders from office, should they violate the public trust. Additionally, the average American voter does not understand the constitutional limits of power that each branch has been given, the checks and balances within the national government, and until the ratification of the 17th Amendment, a check on national government by the states (through the Senate) and the people (through the House of Representatives). Nor do they realize that the President is NOT the head of the national government but merely the head of the executive branch. There is no constitutional requirement that Congress pass every law that the president wants; there are constitutional requirements in place that define where laws must originate. Still, even fewer Americans are aware that it is the House of Representatives that has the absolute power of the national purse.
The question I am most asked when talking about the history of this nation, of the writing and ratification of the Constitution is if we can ever return to the point where the Constitution is regarded as the absolute authority of the nation. My answer is yes but I make it clear that in order for our nation to do this there are several things that must be done. First, we must make teaching the Constitution, without political slant, a priority in our nation’s public and private schools. Each grade level needs to be taught about the rights, the protections, the limitations, and the reasons behind the Constitution. High school students must be taught of the liberties, the responsibilities, and requirements for political participation. There must be a demand that each high school graduate have a fundamental understanding of the Constitution. We also must teach these same students how to research political issues, to be a consumer of political news and how to separate political slant from fact. We must also not be afraid to have the difficult political discussions and include the younger generation, teaching them it is acceptable to be emotionally passionate about issues providing their opinions and passions are grounded in fact. They must be taught how to separate the assigned labels and public mythology the mainstream media has assigned to every political movement from the Tea Party to the Green Party.
America didn’t get to this point within one generation and the problems we are now seeing will not be solved in one generation. If we are serious about preserving the Constitution, the time to begin is now and we must decide, as a nation, that we will abide by the Constitution and hold all politicians – both in the present and the future – to the standards the Constitution has set before the nation.