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 David Said, a social studies teacher at Athens High School in Troy, Michigan. Other posts in this series can be found here.
In a fairly recent court case, Bostock v. Clayton County (2020), the US Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that sex discrimination does cover gay and transgender individuals under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. One of the more surprising aspects of this case was that the majority opinion was delivered by associate justice Neil Gorsuch. Appointed by President Trump to replace the late Antonin Scalia, most assumed he would tow the line of conservative jurisprudence. In joining with Chief Justice John Roberts and all three of the court’s liberal leaning justices, Gorsuch’s majority decision showcased a level of judicial independence that is important for the maintaining the integrity of this important institution.
A key part of Gorsuch’s judicial philosophy is grounded in a concept called “textualism.” Simply put, textualism is an interpretation of law in which the words of the legal text are analyzed through the lens of their normal meaning. It is quite common for Justices to include authors’ intent, historical examples, and most importantly precedence as factors when deciding a case that comes before the Supreme Court. Textualism appears to simplify this process altogether by requiring one to truly dig deep into the meaning of words and phrase. In the Bostock case, the word that Gorsuch zeroed in on was “sex” within Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Discriminating against an individual or group because of their sex could reasonably be interpreted to include gender as well as sexual orientation. The six Justices in the majority agreed with that preceding sentence. Conversely, the Justices in the minority were quick to point out that members of the legislative branch were likely not thinking of anything beyond men or women in the year 1964.
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 first guest author is Stephen Lazar, is a National Board Certified Social Studies teacher, who is typically teaching students Social Studies and English at Harvest Collegiate High School in NYC, which he helped to start. This year, he is on sabbatical and a Ph.D. candidate in history at the CUNY Graduate Center and is one of the Shanker Institute Civics Fellows. Other posts in this series can be found here.
This is my first Constitution Day in some time where I will not be teaching high school students, since I am on sabbatical as I work towards a Ph.D. in history. When I am teaching history, there are two things I want students to understand more than anything else. First, history is complicated; things are rarely simply good or bad. Second, I want students to understand that that history is not merely a list of sequential facts. Instead, history is made up of competing interpretations. I regularly tell my students that historians, far more knowledgeable than we are, look at all the available evidence and come to different conclusions from each other. When I return to the classroom next fall, I plan to engage my students in one such disagreement in looking at the impact of the Constitution on people who were enslaved.
Increasingly over the past few years, my students have come with strong opinions on the Constitution’s relationship to the institution of slavery. This happens for a variety of reasons: engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement, watching Thirteenth on Netflix, and exposure to the growing public discourse that examines the history of racism in the United States. Whereas a decade ago, most of my students knew very little about the Constitution or had a relatively positive view of it, now a critical mass of my students strongly believe that the Constitution laid the foundation for a racist society because it was proslavery.
Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and principal author of the Albert Shanker Institute’s Democracy Web, an extra-curricular resource for teachers.
“The main thing is, they’re talking about us.”
Joseph Goebbels, The Goebbels Diaries, 1932-34
Comparing Trump’s presidency with past fascist regimes, and particularly that of Hitler’s Germany, is generally seen as partisan hyperbole. Past warnings of a Nazi-like leader taking hold in America — like Sinclair Lewis’s ironically titled It Can’t Happen Here — were belied by history. America’s constitutional system can withstand even Trump. Can’t it?
The Trump presidency is certainly not the emergent Third Reich. Adolf Hitler, once handed power, acted swiftly to supplant the existing constitution by emergency decree, directed widespread repression against political opponents, purged Jews from state institutions, and held elections and referenda under conditions of mass intimidation to cement Nazi rule. By contrast, America saw three years of generally unhindered political opposition, media criticism, and free (if flawed) elections in which an opposition party made serious gains.
Yet events keep giving resonance to the warnings about Donald Trump’s rise to power. In response to national protests and unrest over brutal police violence against African Americans, Trump had peaceful demonstrators in front of the White House attacked and ordered the military to “expand the battlespace” to U.S. soil. What is happening here?
Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and principal author of the Albert Shanker Institute’s Democracy Web, an extra-curricular resource for teachers. He also edited the journal Uncaptive Minds from 1988 to 1998.
“Which world is ‘natural’? That which existed before or the world of war?
Both are natural if both are within the realm of one’s experience.”
- Czesław Miłosz The Captive Mind, 1953
It was a political eternity ago.
In 2016, several political commentators (myself included) warned about the potential consequences of electing a presidential candidate who relied on authoritarian tactics and appeals — mass rallies of adoring crowds, nationalist slogans, race-based electoral strategies, and promises of strong leadership and repressive policies to solve the country’s problems. As the popularity of that candidate, Donald Trump, rose, there was serious alarm that America’s citizenry might choose an outcome damaging to American democracy and world security.*
Trump’s victory, determined by a close and unpopular outcome, was greeted with both shock and acceptance. According to tradition, it was the only possible reaction. The serving president from the opposition party welcomed Trump to the Oval Office, signaling a peaceful transition to power. The editorial boards of America’s newspapers, nearly all of which had advocated Trump’s defeat, now appealed to readers to accept the electorate's decision. That the “will of the people” in a presidential election was so distorted by its antique Electoral College system — with the “winner” losing by nearly 3 million votes in the national tally — had no bearing on the matter. Nor the fact that the republic’s Founders had established this unusual system to protect against the people selecting an inexperienced, unfit demagogue to national office. Trump was inaugurated on January 20, 2017.
If recent history demonstrates anything, it is the old truth that American democracy is a work in progress, and that it can suffer reversals as well as advances. The teaching of civics in our schools should convey the complex and fluid character of American government, and the concurrent responsibility of citizens to be actively involved in politics in order to defend and expand the rights and freedoms of American democracy. At a moment of great risk for democracy, both in the United States and abroad, it is especially important for young people to understand that the moral arc of history does not bend on its own, but only by the active intervention of ordinary people. We may still have a republic, even in this moment of dangerous turmoil, but—as Benjamin Franklin famously opined—only if the citizenry can keep it.
Seen in this light, the crash course on how to teach civics offered by the Fordham Institute’s Checker Finn is an exemplar of what NOT to do. In an age of the rise of authoritarian and racist populisms of the far right, including that found at the pinnacle of American government, Finn is exercised about the emergence of an embryonic democratic socialist current in American politics. Of particular concern is what he sees as an “appalling” New York Times op-ed by two young editors of the socialist journal Jacobin, which argued that “subversion of democracy was the explicit intent of the framers” of the Constitution, and advocated constitutional reform to make the American system more democratic.
The idea that the 1789 Constitution contained significant anti-democratic elements seems to be anathema to Finn. Armed with an exegesis of Federalist Paper 10 which misses the essence of James Madison’s argument, he asserts that the purpose of the Constitution was the promotion and defense of democracy, full stop, and that is how it must be taught in civics courses.
Our guest author today, Mac Maharaj, is a former African National Congress (ANC) leader, friend and prison mate of Nelson Mandela’s, who smuggled the first draft of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, out of Robben Island. Over the past 50 years, he has been an anti-apartheid activist, political prisoner, exile, underground commander, negotiator, bank director, professor and a cabinet minister in South Africa's first democratic government. This post was adapted from his remarks to the ASI’s recent Crisis of Democracy conference.
I come from the generation that negotiated South Africa’s transition from race rule to a constitutional democracy that has been acclaimed throughout the world. We put together a constitution founded on an entrenched Bill of Rights, with a separation of powers, bolstered by a set of independent institutions. Having entrenched freedoms, such as that of expression, the media and assembly, and having secured the protection of the individual from arbitrary arrest, we believed that we had established a system that would enable the mediation of conflicts of interest that are immanent in society—evading the civil strife that degenerates into violence and preventing any group from having to go to war.
But our democracy is only a little over two decades old, and there are already growing concerns that our system has not delivered and is under threat.
The sixth author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and a consultant for the Albert Shanker Institute’s Democracy Web project. He is the author of Democracy’s Champion: Albert Shanker and the International Impact of the American Federation of Teachers, available from the Institute. Chenoweth also worked in the AFT's International Affairs department from 1987-1991. You can find the other posts in this series here.
Albert Shanker knew from an early age the power of prejudice. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he grew up in a poor Queens neighborhood where anti-Semitism was rife. Among the few Jews at his school, he was subject to constant taunts and a near fatal attack by fellow students. The lessons of his childhood and upbringing gave him a profound sympathy for other marginalized groups in society and helped lead to his activism in the civil rights movement (he was an early member of the Congress on Racial Equality). His upbringing also taught him other powerful lessons. His mother’s membership in textile workers unions had helped his family out of poverty (“trade unions were second to God in our household”), while the public schools he attended (and other institutions such as public libraries) were essential to his gaining greater opportunities for higher education that ultimately led him into teaching. All of it was intertwined.
Perhaps most profoundly, the rise of fascism, World War II, and the post-war challenges of Soviet communism informed his early world view. He became a committed believer in democracy and opponent of dictatorship. His early leanings towards socialism were rooted in the study of anti-fascist and anti-communist intellectuals of his era, including John Dewey, Sidney Hook, George Orwell, Iganzio Silone, Arthur Koestler, and Victor Serge — Left intellectuals who opposed all forms of government that would oppress freedom.
Our guest author today is Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 20007).
Freedom House recently released the significant – and sobering -- results of its report, “Freedom in the World 2014." The survey is the latest in an annual assessment of political and civil liberties around the globe. For the eighth year in a row, the overall level of freedom declined, as 54 nations saw erosion of political and civil rights, including Egypt, Turkey and Russia. (A smaller number, 40, saw gains.) Despite the early hopes of the Arab Spring, democracy promotion has proven a long and difficult fight.
None of this would surprise Albert Shanker, who devoted his life to championing democracy, yet always recognized the considerable difficulty of doing so. Around 1989, when the world was celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, Shanker took the long view: “What we’ve seen are the beginnings of democracy. We haven’t really seen democracy yet. We’ve seen the overthrow of dictatorship. Democracy is going to take generations to build and we have to be a part of that building because they won’t be able to do it alone."
Our guest author today is Han Dongfang, director of China Labor Bulletin. You can follow him on Weibo in Chinese and on Twitter in English and Chinese. This article originally appeared on the China Labor Bulletin, and has been reprinted with permission of the author.
The first of February this year was a historic day in the Chinese village of Wukan. Several thousand villagers, who had chased out their corrupt old leaders, went to the polls to democratically elect new representatives. A few months later, on 27 May, there was another equally historic democratic election in a factory in nearby Shenzhen, when nearly 800 employees went to the polls to elect their new trade union representatives. These two elections, one in the countryside, the other in the workplace, both represent important milestones on the road towards genuine grassroots democracy in China.
Just like in Wukan, the Shenzhen election came about a few months after a mass protest at the ineptitude of the incumbent leadership. The workers at the Omron electronics factory staged a strike on 29 March demanding higher pay and better benefits and, crucially, democratic elections for a new trade union chairman.
"...part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others..." - President Barack Obama
In an extraordinary speech at the United Nations last Thursday, President Obama asserted his leadership and the leadership of the U.S. in the promotion of democracy and human rights around the world. Think that’s a "no news" story? You’d be wrong. The Bush administration’s effort to frame the Iraq invasion as an effort to bring democracy to the region has had the effect of linking traditional U.S. democracy promotion to military intervention in the minds of many people, in the U.S and abroad. And, although Mr. Obama campaigned in support of democracy promotion, his administration has approached the issue cautiously. In fact, the administration has been criticized for backing away from a tough democracy and human rights line in its bilateral relations, especially in the Middle East and China. Moreover, although he promised to increase the budget for the National Endowment for Democracy, in his first budget, the President actually proposed a funding reduction, but in the subsequent compromise legislation, signed off on a small increase.
In this context, apparently anticipating a skeptical reaction to the speech, the White House released a "fact sheet" outlining activities and initiatives to illustrate its commitment to promoting democratic ideals.