Teaching The Constitution As A Living Compact

In honor of Constitution Day (September 17th), this blog series invites teachers and leaders in the field of civics and democracy education to address the question: Why is it important to teach the Constitution? Our final guest author in this series is Randi Weingarten, president of the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers. Other posts in this series can be found here.

At a time when the future of American democracy hangs in the balance, how should we teach the U.S. Constitution?

The Preamble to the Constitution, where the framers laid out its purposes, provides us with six words that help answer this question. The Constitution was intended, its authors wrote, “to form a more perfect union.” With this phrase, the framers made it clear that they did not conceive of the Constitution or the republic it established as a finished product, perfect and complete for all time, but as a work in progress, in need of continuous renewal and “re-founding.” By the design of the founders, the Constitution is a living compact, changing and evolving with “we the people” who authorize it and give it legitimacy anew with each successive generation of Americans.

It is this dynamic quality that enabled the American people to re-found a Constitution which had enslavement of African-Americans explicitly written into it, and to change that with the Civil War amendments—the 13th,14th and 15th that promise universal liberty and equality. It is this same quality that gave us the capacity to re-found a Constitution that permitted the most fundamental right of citizenship—the vote—initially restricted to white men of property, to be expanded.  Suffrage now is a freedom for all men and women over 18 years old, irrespective of class, race, religion and national origin. It is this essential quality that has made it possible for the American republic, with all of its strengths and all of its flaws, to become “more perfect” and endure for over two centuries.

The battle for universal liberty and equality, and for citizenship for all Americans, is by no means done. Today we face the challenge of laws designed to suppress voting, to gerrymander election districts and to overturn democratic elections. As the framers understood, the struggle for a “more perfect union” is never finished. That is why a vision of a Constitution that can address the flaws of our republican institutions is so fundamental to American democracy.

To teach the Constitution as a living compact, we should make it possible for our students, as the next generation of “we the people,” to not simply read or embrace the words, but also to interrogate them, to contextualize this document of fundamental law that is being handed down to them. Our students should be able to inquire not only into how the Constitution delivers on the democratic promise of “liberty and justice for all,” but also into how, in their judgment, it falls short of that promise. They should have the freedom and the right to discover a Constitution that they can make into their own vehicle for “forming a more perfect union.” As educators, we should conceive of our work as facilitating that process of inquiry and discovery on the part of our students. When I taught American history, civics and law to my inner-city and immigrant students in Clara Barton High School in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, this was how I understood my purpose: to introduce to my students a Constitution that they understood not simply for what it is now, but that they could see themselves in, envisioning how its words and their actions could together enable a “more perfect union.” 

Some may object that the mission of educators is to inculcate in students an allegiance to the political institutions and principles they will inherit, starting with the Constitution. I have devoted my adult life as an educator, a unionist and a lawyer to advocating and advancing the core democratic principles of liberty, equality, justice and solidarity, and in my dedication to these principles and to the ways in which they are embodied in the Constitution, I cede to no one. But I do not believe that the work of educators is to demand or dictate that  students adopt as their own our ideas—even the ones we know are essential such as liberty, equality, justice and solidarity. Rather, our vocation is—as John Dewey would often put it—to teach students how to think, not what to think. It is precisely my faith in democracy that leads me to conclude that a person with the ability to reason logically and think critically will, far more often than not, embrace fundamental democratic principles and institutions. They will be able to discern fact from propaganda. They will be able to reject misinformation and distortion. I was never afraid of my students' pursuit of hard questions, or uncomfortable truths. My goal was to have my students engage the Constitution in ways that led them to think critically about its history and meaning and to reason with each other about its purpose and its future.

These are perilous times for American democracy. The January 6th insurrection and its aftermath have put the dangers we face in dramatic reveal. A rededication to teaching a Constitution that seeks to build on our strengths and redress our weaknesses in order for “we the people”  “to form a more perfect union” is important for American educators.