The Constitution and the uses of American history

In 2003, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) sponsored legislation requiring educational institutions that receive federal money to provide instruction on the U.S. Constitution each Sept. 17, Constitution Day. To comply, Stanley Katz, lecturer with the rank of professor in the Woodrow Wilson School and president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies, spoke on the topic this year — “though perhaps,” he acknowledged, “not exactly as the good senator would have wished.” Below is an excerpt from Katz’s address; the complete text is online, click here.

In his address, Katz notes that though educational institutions are required to observe Constitution Day, they are not told how to do that — and that the annual proclamations by Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush suggest a range of meanings in the observance. “Put simply, Bill Clinton saw the Constitution as an originally flawed document, the product of change produced by more than two centuries of political struggle,” Katz says, and “George Bush sees it as the embodiment of enduring values and the key to understanding American history. My argument is that it is this [Bush] view that Sen. Byrd and others are promoting.” The excerpt begins as Katz addresses his main concern, the teaching of history in undergraduate education. He starts with an earlier piece of Byrd legislation, the 2000 “Teaching American History” (TAH) initiative:

The core of Byrd’s intention is to return to what he thinks of as traditional American history: “[W]e need good history books and good teachers so that the boys and girls today will find their heroes among the early Americans who built this country.” Good history is the story of Byrd’s childhood heroes. The problem for Byrd is not just that schoolchildren are not being taught enough American history, but that they are not being taught the right kind of history. And his initiative has flourished. In 2002 TAH was incorporated into the No Child Left Behind Act (as part of the teacher-quality section of the Act); even in tough budget times over the past five years it has consistently been funded at more than $100 million a year — about two-thirds of what the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts each receives annually.

Considering that in the entire history of the United States prior to 2000 there had never been dedicated funding for the teaching of American history in the schools, this is a staggering national investment in U.S. history. How did it come about? Essentially, this is the story of an idea that appealed to a great many politicians for very different reasons. One set of reasons has to do with the so-called culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, in which political conservatives made much of the alleged ignorance of American schoolchildren as a cause of cultural decline. Another set has to do with the efforts of some university historians to try to reclaim the teaching of history from the dominant social studies curriculum in the public schools. Both sets were stimulated by the contentious survey conducted by Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn, published in 1988 as What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, with a foreword by NEH Chairwoman Lynne V. Cheney, who made historical truth one of her mantras. In short, the argument of Ravitch and Finn was that schoolchildren did not know the facts of American history, a finding also confirmed in a survey report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in 2000 titled “Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century.” Like the Ravitch-Finn survey, the ACTA report focused on ignorance of commonplace historical facts, reporting that 81 percent of those surveyed “could not identify Valley Forge, passages from the Gettysburg Address, or the principles of the U.S. Consti-tution.” ACTA also reported that none of “the nation’s top colleges and universities require students to study American history” (that still includes Old Nassau) and “only 10 percent require students to study history at all” (not us either).

Katz then reviews how Congress jumped on the “historical ignorance” bandwagon, and how NEH Chairman Bruce Cole has overseen a similar effort through an educational program known as “We the People.” In all these efforts, Katz says, the proposed approach to “history is about teaching facts and values, with the facts intended to support particular values, though the evidence they produce of lack of historical knowledge is primarily about ignorance of specific individuals (‘heroes,’ mostly), events, and places.” He continues:

Since at least 2000 a variety of politicians from both parties have proposed programs to reinvigorate the teaching of U.S. history and civics, on the theory that history education is a prerequisite for democratic education. The George W. Bush National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education have administered such programs. Of course there is nothing wrong with striving to improve the teaching of history and civics. But the agenda behind these particular programs is ideological and didactic. It is premised on the notions that The Founders Knew Best and that We Ought Still to Be Governed by the Original Principles, and these are both historically and politically debatable at best and pernicious at worst. Not just historians but all educators should resist the notion that students of all ages should be taught historical political mythology.

But this is not to argue that there is not a nexus between democracy and education. Quite the contrary. My personal hero in this, John Dewey, put it eloquently in 1916, when our democracy was anything but secure:

“The devotion of democracy to education is a familiar fact. The superficial explanation is that a government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated. Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education. But there is a deeper explanation. A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. ... A society which is mobile, which is full of channels for the distribution of a change occurring anywhere, must see to it that its members are educated to personal initiative and adaptability. Otherwise, they will be overwhelmed by the changes in which they are caught and whose significance or connections they do not perceive. The result will be a confusion in which a few will appropriate to themselves the results of the blind and externally directed activities of others.”

It seems to me that some such assumption should properly be the basis for liberal undergraduate education. We ought not to be about telling our students what is right (though any teacher worth her salt will have strong preferences as to right and wrong in her own domain). The aim of liberal education is to challenge students to make their own informed judgments. We, along with Dewey, want our students to be “educated to personal initiative and adaptability.”

More specifically for history teachers, the goal is not facticity. The historian aims to train his students in historical thinking — to be able to acquire the relevant data (facts among them) and then to be able to make reasoned judgments and draw conclusions from them. This is the sort of thinking that is not so easily assessed, unlike the simple-minded information survey that led to the dismal conclusions of What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? or the even more tawdry ACTA survey. It would be nice if all of my students knew what happened on Sept. 17, 1787, in Phila-delphia, but it would be much nicer if they had an informed interpretation of what the long-term significance of the signing of the federal Constitution might be. My friend and history department colleague Theodore Rabb *61 put the point well in a June essay on history teaching in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “If we gave talented teachers of history their heads, they could convey the joys of this endlessly fascinating subject, with its heroes and villains, conflict and engagement, drama and discovery,” he wrote. “Their students, in turn, could gain a sense of perspective about themselves and their world, and learn to analyze the news that surrounds them. Instead, we put the teaching of history into ever-narrower straitjackets, and spin test results that demonstrate profound ignorance into symptoms of a brighter future.”

History, especially U.S. history, also has a large role to play in our university classrooms, in training students in historical thinking, and even in teaching them how democracy works. But this is not in my view the special obligation of historians. Rather, it is an integral part of liberal education. Harry Lewis, the distinguished former dean at Harvard, wrote in the Chronicle recently that “colleges can’t say that civic ignorance is just the problem of high schools. Honoring the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy is part of the moral obligation universities assume in exchange for the vast freedoms ... they enjoy.” He wrote:

“I stoutly oppose federal interference in the content of college curricula. But institutions of higher education have a social contract with America, and we are not holding up our end of the deal. We owe it to the country to teach our students how democracy works. … More is at issue here than the dates in American history. Students need to develop a feeling for the preciousness of human freedom and self-determination, and the responsibility of citizens to act for the good of their country and not only in their personal self-interest. In college, they should learn how Amer- ica’s foundational ideas, of liberty and equality under the law, apply to the difficult problems with which it is struggling today. They need to learn that as citizens we have no one but ourselves to blame for our elected officials and their actions.”

I think Lewis has it just right. Put another way, what Lewis (and I) would advocate is not filiopietistic patriotism, of the NEH variety, but rather constitutional patriotism, which is quite a different matter. As Jürgen Habermas has put it: “The political culture of a country crystallizes around its constitution. Each national culture develops a distinctive interpretation of those constitutional principles that are equally embodied in other republican constitutions — such as popular sovereignty and human rights — in light of its own national history. A ‘constitutional patriotism’ based on these interpretations can take the place originally occupied by nationalism.”

Notice that Habermas asks us to locate where we are constitutionally in relation both to our own history and to the situation of other republican polities. This is a sensible and responsible use of constitutional history. It appeals to me, since I have devoted 50 years of teaching to attempting something like what Habermas suggests. But ... I am adamantly opposed to the calls for the normative teaching of history and the prescriptive use of education.

My challenge to you ... is simply to think about what the Constitution means today and has meant historically to this country. This is what my UCLA colleague Joyce Appleby has done in an op-ed titled “Let’s Do Something Constitutional on Constitution Day,” urging the Congress to act on its constitutionally mandated exclusive power to declare war. There’s a practical suggestion!

If you should happen to agree with me that some of those who have urged us to venerate the document and its early history are now undermining the vigor and integrity of our constitutional tradition, I would be delighted. If not, I would love to engage you on the topic.

Long live the Constitution of the United States! And long live Sen. Robert Byrd!