Editor’s Note: This is part of a series examining the Constitution and federalist documents in America today.
The Constitution sometimes seems out of step with the spirit of our time. It is troubling for those of us who value individual rights, federalism, and institutional guarantees against tyranny.
There are many causes for this, including a distorted understanding of the nature of a written constitution, general civic illiteracy, and the growing influence of progressive and Marxist ideas in our education system. Noble efforts have been made on several fronts to address these problems. The Federalist Society, for example, has done a tremendous job in responding to a hostile legal environment by educating and promoting “original” judges. Other associations, university centers and schools have responded by launching major civic education initiatives. Such efforts have kept American constitutionalism alive despite indifference or outright hostility towards it.
Yet these measures do not address the heart of the threat. Many observers realize that these measures are roadblocks against a rising tide of opinions that view the Constitution as irrelevant at best and pernicious at worst. “While it is true that all governments are based on opinion,” as James Madison observes in Federalist # 49, we must be concerned.
The good (and bad) news is that the problem is actually not that new. Perhaps the greatest observer of the American regime, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed in 1831 that the federalists, that is to say the supporters of the ratification of the Constitution, “were fighting against the irresistible inclination of their century and of their country “.
It is surely a strange observation. Was the document at the heart of our political credo counter-cultural? Despite this, he maintains that “the arrival of the federalists to power [was] one of the happiest events that accompanied the birth of the great American Union. In other words, the ratification of the Constitution was a fluke.
The brilliant minds of Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, the peculiar problems encountered under the Articles of Confederation, and the clever policy of the Federalists in state ratification conventions were able to overcome the adversities that time and tides presented to them.
Part of the challenge, as Tocqueville tells us time and time again elsewhere, is that democratic peoples “despise forms”. We don’t like formalities, distinctions, established procedures and the detailed keeping of things in their place. Such things smell of aristocracy and are seen as threats to equality. They also tend to put barriers in the way of the desires of rapid majorities in a democracy. Technology and other historical factors have increased our “contempt for form” and make preservation of the Constitution all the more difficult. It is the enduring and underlying problem that gives the impression that the Constitution is still fighting fiercely.
This is because the Constitution is filled with barrier-creating “forms” such as the enumerated limited powers of national government, varying terms of office and selection methods designed to shape behavior in different branches of government, and checks and balances. . So we find ourselves in the difficult position of being suspicious of the very things that protect us from what Madison calls in Federalist No. 10 the “misdeeds” of potentially tyrannical majority factions.
Think of recent political movements to review the composition of the Senate or increase the number of Supreme Court justices.
It is not simply a point of historical or philosophical interest. Because just as the “happy” victory of the federalists in 1788 gave birth to our Constitution, we are living another happy movement which can provide the necessary remedy for our contempt for forms.
The good news is that there is currently a broad and energetic revival of “classical” elementary education (K-12) underway in the United States. Classical education accustoms students to forms. The emphasis on “trivium” (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) reinforces the structure, precision and careful use of language. It also encourages the recitation of measured poetry.
In this way, students can experience the shapes as part of something beautiful and, therefore, come to love the shapes. Of course, the purpose of such education is not primarily civic, but it is impossible without it to create and maintain a lasting public opinion in favor of the Constitution.
To put it more bluntly, a generalized classical education is the necessary condition for the success of civic education.
This movement was born mainly in response to a deep need of civil society, and not by government action. Charter schools, Christian academies, parish schools, and homeschooling families are all a part of this. Perhaps the best example is the Great Hearts Academies, a network of conventional charter schools in Arizona and Texas that enrolled over 22,000 students last year. Organizations such as the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education (ICLE) and the CiRCE Institute, which are dedicated to helping schools and parents transition to a mainstream model, are booming. There is even a classic alternative to SAT and ACT developed by the Classic Learning Test (CLT).
However, for the movement to continue to thrive, it needs political support. This growing emphasis on formal education is the most important political struggle for those who wish to preserve the Constitution. It must be pursued in several ways.
For such education to have the hoped-for restorative and salutary effect, it must be accessible to those who cannot afford private education. School choice policies such as vouchers should be encouraged. Classic public charter schools should be created and funded wherever possible. Parents must “vote with their feet” by choosing classical schools for their children.
At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was questioned by a lady that he knew what form of government the convention had produced. “A Republic, madam, if you can keep it,” he replied. The work of classical education does not bring a quick cure to our republic, but in the long run it may be the only way to keep it.
• Professor Joseph Wysocki is Dean of Honors College and Associate Professor of Governmental and Political Philosophy. Honors College offers students a unique combination of a four-year “ledgers” study program and the opportunity to develop professionally through a variety of academic majors.