The Cure for a “Gravely Ill Constitution” is More Civics Education

Garrett Epps  wrote a piece in The Atlantic on Tuesday titled “Trumpism is the Symptom of a Gravely Ill Constitution.”

In this piece Epps argues that

Trumpism is the symptom, not the cause, of the malaise. I think we have for some time been living in the post-Constitution era. America’s fundamental law remains and will remain important as a source of litigation. But the nation seems to have turned away from a search of values in the Constitution, regarding it instead as a set of annoying rules.

He goes on to argue that Donald Trump and his supporters are “openly contemptuous of the nation’s founding document, of its Bill of Rights, and of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection.”

Epps’ piece reminds of a warning issued by James Monroe, our nation’s fifth president, in his first Inaugural Address –

It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising their sovereignty. Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin. Let us, then, look to the great cause, and endeavor to preserve it in full force. Let us by all wise and constitutional measures promote intelligence among the people as the best means of preserving our liberties.

A variety of surveys and studies in recent years confirm that Americans lack a basic understanding of the United States Constitution and system of government. The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found in their annual Constitution Day survey that only a quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government, the poorest showing on that question in a half-dozen years. They also found that nearly a third of Americans cannot name any of the three branches of government. Last year, the APPC survey found that about one in 10 Americans (12 percent) says the Bill of Rights includes the right to own a pet. (For the record – it does not!)

A study by the Center for Civic Education and Professor Diana Owen of Georgetown University found that 86% of respondents are aware that they are not well-informed regarding our nation’s foundational documents.

As Monroe said in his first inaugural address and many of our Founding Fathers confirmed in much of their writings, the cure for an “ill Constitution” is education!

In 1785, John Jay wrote,  “I consider knowledge to be the soul of a republic[.]” Years earlier, John Adams in his Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law remarked that “Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people.” In his second annual message to Congress, then-President James Madison stated “It is universally admitted that a well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.”

In one of his most famous quotes, Thomas Jefferson stated: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

High quality life-long civics education is essential for the continued health of the American republic. It helps ensure that Americans of all ages, in the words of Noah Webster, value “the principles of virtue and liberty,” and that we “inspire them with just and liberal ideas of government and with an inviolable attachment to their own country.”

Regardless of whether you agree with Epps’ argument about Trumpism or instead believe that its Clintonism that represents the symptom of an ill Constitution, the stats and rhetoric in 2016 are clear, we need to reinvigorate our nation’s commitment to civics education. Education is and has always been the cure for what ails our Republic.

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