Why Teach The Constitution?

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 guest author today is Zeph Capo, a public school science teacher, president of the Texas AFT, and member of the Shanker Institute Board of Directors. Other posts in this series can be found here.

Collective bargaining is the cornerstone on which we built the middle-class. As a labor leader, it is the best tool used by workers to earn a seat at the table as equals with their employer. It is also how we develop a contract outlining one another’s roles, rights, and responsibilities in the workplace. As an educator, I ask: How do we expect workers to understand the process and power of collective bargaining if they don’t understand the power and process of governance as outlined in our Constitution?

I believe teaching the Constitution is vital, because it is the premier collectively-bargained contract present in our lives. The rights, responsibilities, and regulations set forth in the Constitution serve as the bedrock on which we develop all other aspects of the agreements governing the many facets of our society.

Our Constitution details the contract between the government and the governed. Like any contract, the Constitution outlines both your rights and responsibilities as a party to the agreement. In the midst of the pandemic, some citizens denounce masking policies that they claim violate their rights. They often fail to remember or acknowledge that we give up some individual freedoms when we give our consent to be governed. The consent to be governed is a trade-off of personal liberties for the greater collective ability of the government to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all citizens. It is the very essence of the social contract we bargained collectively as a nation more than 200 years ago.

Our system of government, and challenge thereunto, is vested in the ballot box. Our belief in popular sovereignty and the peaceful transition of power has kept our government stable for centuries. Sadly, when our citizenry is less familiar with their role in the governance process, or do not exercise their right to vote and be active participants in our society, we suffer governments beholden only to the loud minority who do participate in the process.

Laws such as the recent Texas voter suppression act compromise our social contract and endanger future peaceful transitions of power by fundamentally altering the premise that we are all created equal with equal rights and responsibilities. Such acts remind us that our past history of denying basic constitutional rights to many of our citizens is not, in fact, history.  Students who understand the Constitution are in a better place to challenge governments that create unjust laws with the purpose of consolidating power, rather than to govern justly. This is exactly why Texas AFT has joined with other organizations who share our values of equality to challenge the constitutionality of Texas’ most recent voter suppression law.

Lastly, teaching the Constitution and other similar primary source documents is our best defense against the corrosive impact of fake news in our society. Truth and fact become elusive when we are bombarded with information on a regular basis. Understanding how to use primary source documents, such as the Constitution, allows for the greatest level of transparency and the ability for students to distinguish between the varying quality of information sources. Securing our rights requires that we constantly demand them. Understanding and enforcing our contract is how we do so. Right now, our country is in need of a new wave of 21st century constitutional scholars to get the job done. Let’s do our part as educators to develop them.

Thank you to Zaakir Tameez, Nicole Hill and Andrew Dewey for your thoughts on this topic.