Editor’s note: This is one in a series examining the Constitution and Federalist Papers in today’s America.
The Constitution sometimes seems out of sync with the spirit of our times. This is troubling for those of us who value individual rights, federalism and institutional safeguards against tyranny.
There are many causes for this, including warped understandings of the nature of a written constitution, general civic illiteracy and the increasing influence of progressive and Marxist ideas in our educational system. Noble efforts have been made on a number of fronts to remedy these problems. The Federalist Society, for example, has done tremendous work in responding to a hostile legal environment by educating and promoting “originalist” judges. Other associations, university centers and schools have responded by launching major civics education initiatives. Such efforts have kept American constitutionalism alive despite indifference or outright hostility toward it.
Yet those measures do not respond to the core of the threat. Many observers realize that these measures are dams against a rising tide of opinions that view the Constitution as at best irrelevant and at worst pernicious. “If it be true that all governments rest on opinion” as James Madison observes in Federalist No. 49, we ought to be worried.
The good (and bad) news is that the problem is actually not all that new. Perhaps the greatest observer of the American regime, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed in 1831 that the Federalists, that is those in favor of ratifying the Constitution, “struggled against the irresistible inclination of their century and their country.”
This is surely an odd observation. The document that is at the heart of our political creed was countercultural? Despite this, he maintained that “the coming of the Federalists to power [was] one of the most fortunate events that accompanied the birth of the great American Union.” In other words, the ratification of the Constitution was a stroke of luck.
The brilliant minds of Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, particular problems experienced under the Articles of Confederation, and the shrewd politicking of Federalists in state ratifying conventions were able to overcome the adversities that the time and the tides presented them.
Part of the challenge, as Tocqueville repeatedly tells us elsewhere, is that democratic peoples “scorn forms.” We dislike formalities, distinctions, established procedures and the detailed keeping of things in their proper place. Such things smack of aristocracy and are seen as threats to equality. They also tend to place barriers in the way of the desires of quick-moving majorities in a democracy. Technology and other historical factors have increased our “scorn of forms” and make preserving the Constitution that much more difficult. It is the lasting and underlying problem that makes it seem like the Constitution is always fighting uphill.
The reason for this is that the Constitution is filled with such barrier-creating “forms” such as the limited enumerated powers of the national government, varying term lengths and selection methods designed to shape behaviors in the different branches of government, and checks and balances. We therefore find ourselves in the difficult position of being suspicious of the very things that protect us from what Madison refers to in Federalist No. 10 as the “mischiefs” of potentially tyrannical majority factions.
Think about recent political movements to revisit the composition of the Senate or to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court.
This is not simply a point of historical or philosophic interest. For just as the “fortunate” victory of the Federalists in 1788 brought our Constitution into being, we are experiencing another fortunate movement that can provide the necessary remedy to our scorn of forms.
The good news is that there is currently a broad and energetic revival in “classical” primary education (K-12) going on in the United States. Classical education habituates students to forms. Its emphasis on the “trivium” (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) reinforce structure, precision and the careful use of language. It also encourages the recitation of metered poetry.
In this way students are able to experience forms as part of something beautiful and, consequently, come to love forms. Of course, the purpose of such an education is not primarily a civic one, but creating and nurturing lasting public opinion that favors the Constitution is impossible without it.
To put it more bluntly, widespread classical education is the necessary condition for successful civic education.
This movement has arisen primarily as a response to a deep need in civil society, not through government action. Charter schools, Christian academies, parochial schools and homeschooling families are all part of it. Perhaps the best example can be seen in the Great Hearts Academies, a network of classical charter schools in Arizona and Texas enrolling more than 22,000 students last year. Organizations such as the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education (ICLE) and the CiRCE Institute, dedicated to helping schools and parents transition to a classical model, are booming. There is even a classical alternative to the SAT and the ACT developed by the Classic Learning Test (CLT).
However, for the movement to continue to thrive, it needs political support. This growing emphasis on classical education is the most important political fight for those who wish to preserve the Constitution. It must be carried on in a number of ways.
If such an education is to have the remedial and salutary effect hoped for, it must be accessible to those who cannot afford private education. School choice policies such as vouchers must be promoted. Classical public charter schools must be created and funded wherever possible. Parents must “vote with their feet” by choosing classical schools for their children.
At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked by a lady he knew what form of government the convention had produced. “A Republic, madam, if you can keep it,” he responded. The work of classical education does not provide a quick remedy for our republic, but in the long run, it may be the only way we can keep it.
• Professor Joseph Wysocki is the dean of the Honors College and is an associate professor of Government and Political Philosophy. The Honors College provides students a unique combination of a four-year “great books” curriculum and the ability to develop professionally through a variety of academic majors.