The Constitution Holds the Government Accountable

In this first Constitution Day 2022 Blog Series post, Guest author Sean Thomas, a Shanker Institute Civics Fellow and National Board Certified Teacher, encourages his students to develop a deep personal relationship with the U.S. Constitution because when students become aware of how to exercise their democratic liberties, they can accomplish amazing things.

Democracies work best when the citizens of a nation hold their government accountable. In democracies, the people must take responsibility for their government, its actions, and its laws, because we are the people who put our political leaders in power. The personal responsibility to hold the government accountable is a benefit to all of society. John Locke said, “…by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself [people] under the obligation to everyone in that society.” In order to do this, the people must be aware of the role of government and the job it’s supposed to fulfill. The citizenry must also be aware of when the government is overstepping, so it can check the government’s power. For the United States, the rule of law that establishes the role and limitations of government can be found in the seven articles and twenty-seven amendments contained in the U.S. Constitution.

As a teacher, I encourage my students to not only read the U.S. Constitution, but also to have a deep, personal relationship to it. If students develop this relationship, they have the ability to understand the debate around what the different clauses in the Constitution mean. They can develop an informed position on the rights that are ensured to the people and they can challenge and discuss the variety of interpretations presented to them by politicians, media pundits, and other parts of society. It also helps my students realize that interpretations change over time and allows them to advocate for issues and causes they are passionate about through constitutional arguments. Most importantly, it teaches my students not to be controlled or overly influenced by people who provide interpretations of the Constitution to support a specific political agenda.

As students develop their relationship to the Constitution, they learn how to critically think and it empowers them to engage politically. Students learn that they have a voice and that there are multiple ways to engage in creating positive change. For example, students in my class recently debated the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court case. To prepare for the debate, students read excerpts from Justice Alito’s opinion justifying the reversal of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. During the debate, students addressed the argument that Alito proposed in his ruling that abortion isn’t explicitly included in the Constitution. As a result, Alito explains that if something isn’t explicitly stated in the Constitution than it is left to the states to decide how to deal with the issue. In response, the students proposed the question, does this interpretation of the Constitution ignore amendment nine? After all, the citizens of the United States have “enumerated rights” that the government is equally responsible for protecting. Students proposed the idea that reproductive privacy could be an example of an “enumerated right.” Some of the students who agreed with this position began to directly communicate and lobby their legislators to propose and work to pass a law at the state and federal level that would protect the rights they felt were lost from the Dobbs ruling. Knowledge of the U.S. Constitution directly led to organized action by students.

You can’t exercise your rights without knowing what they are. Often times, students feel disengaged and disenfranchised in politics because they can’t vote and they feel like their voices aren’t heard, but the example above empowered and prompted students to find a different avenue to express themselves. Studying the Constitution provides students with the information they need to participate in their political system even before they can vote. It describes what powers the different branches of the government hold and identifies who the students can lobby to see specific changes. It also provides them permission to be an advocate for issues they care about and to “assemble” in common interest to “petition” the government. Through this engagement, students develop a sense of civic responsibility and become more interested in staying informed. As they pay more attention, they will become more vigilant to what the Supreme Court, Congress, and the President are doing. This will create a more accountable government through informed participation. If students continue to take this responsibility seriously, it will ensure that the needs of the people are met in an ever-changing world and their rights are protected.

I have started to see this at my school. In this ever-changing world, students of this generation have identified mental health as a significant issue and they have started to demand that policy and lawmakers take this issue seriously. In the last few years, students at my school have lobbied school board members, state legislators, the Public Education Department, the Department of Health, and their House Representative for more resources to deal with the rising cases of depression, anxiety, and suicide. Through their advocacy, students have ensured funding for a wellness space on campus, a family therapist at school, and developed social emotional learning curriculum through an advisory period. As students become more aware of how to exercise their democratic liberties, they find they can accomplish amazing things.