- - Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The United States is exceptional not because of what it has achieved—independence, power, wealth, or status—but for what it stands for: liberty, equal rights, popular consent, the rule of law, constitutional self-government. To transmit this knowledge from one generation of citizens to the next is the most important requisite for American democracy.

At Hillsdale College, we teach that American politics should be understood in light of the country’s founding principles, study these principles as they were understood by America’s founders and explore the relationship of these principles to the Constitution and their fate in the development of modern America. We are one of the only colleges in the country that requires each and every student to take a semester course on the United States Constitution as part of its core curriculum. We believe that understanding the principles and workings of liberty is a necessary component of a liberal education.

But this education must not be confined to the classroom. We must teach the principles of liberty and the rights and responsibilities of self-government to all Americans—“to refine and enlarge the public views,” as Madison put it—not as a matter of historical curiosity but as a source of permanent truth in a world of moral confusion.

As an extension of its teaching mission, Hillsdale College offers not-for-credit online courses taught be Hillsdale faculty on a range of subjects—from Western Heritage to Economics to Great Books. With over one million enrollments, the cornerstone of these seminars is “Constitution 101: The Meaning and History of the Constitution,” based on the college’s core undergraduate course that covers the origins, formation, and history of the Constitution through its greatest trials. We have recently added a course that guides our online students through The Federalist Papers’ explication of the Constitution. All this, and the primary source Constitution Reader used by our students, is available for free at online.hillsdale.edu.

Rather than throwing up our hands and withdrawing from the public debate, we need to engage it in new ways. That is why Hillsdale College founded the Allan P. Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, DC: to teach our national leaders about the foundational principles and constitutional wisdom that are the roots of our country’s greatness, about applying America’s core principles creatively to the questions of the day, and generally reframing the national debate about the most serious issues before us.

Most Americans still believe in the uniqueness of this country and respect its noble ideas. They have not given up on their country’s experiment in self-government, and have not concluded that the cause of liberty and limited constitutional government is lost. Jefferson called the Declaration of Independence “an expression of the American mind.” Our aim must be a clear expression and forthright defense of America’s principles in the classroom and the public square so that they become, once again, an expression of the American mind. As it has been for most of American history, so it can be again.

• Matthew Spalding is Associate Vice President and Dean of Educational Programs for Hillsdale College in Washington, DC.

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