Teaching the Constitution: Concepts in the Instruction on the American National Charter

Teaching the Constitution: Concepts in the Instruction on the American National Charter

Michael J. C. Taylor (Independent Researcher, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8082-9.ch008

Abstract

The Constitution of the United States is the essential document of the American Republic. It not only sets the legal perimeters under which the federal government operates, but it also creates a balance in the political relations between the federal government and the individual states. The Bill of Rights, the initial 10 amendments to the document, ratified in 1791, provide both civil rights, as well as the guarantee of criminal procedures for individual citizens. Therefore, its careful study is critical to produce an educated citizenry capable of making knowledgeable political decisions. This chapter puts forward a mode of study for the document at the heart of our republic.
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Methodology And Initial Steps

In the teaching of history, it is not the facts of history (who, where, what, when) that are important, but the significance (how, why, so what). For students, when all that is taught are the facts, the knowledge of history becomes either the means by which to pass a standardized test, or mere fodder for a game of Trivial Pursuit. The past does not come alive for them until they themselves comprehend how it is relevant to their lives. Instruction in the Constitution of the United States is no different: It was a document constructed by real flesh-and-blood human beings, at a time when the nation itself was in danger of disintegrating, and its outcome was the product of compromise between men holding a broad swathe of political ideologies.

Thus, in teaching the Constitution, an instructor should be grounded in the following three tenets of historical interpretation:

First, every event has a context: the part or parts of something written or spoken which immediately precede and/or follow an event, and which clarify its meaning. No human action or event occurs without a background and/or framework. Even happenstance has factors which bring it into being. Therefore, a simple answer is to effectively strip it of any hint of context, which concurrently renders any response incomplete at best.

Secondly, every event possesses an underlying cause: The essential features of an object, event, or situation which are not obvious, be difficult to discover or reveal, but are a major influence upon chronology and outcome. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides in his essential work History of the Peloponnesian War was the first known author to overtly introduce such elements into his historical treatise.1 He placed within a specific context several underlying causes that together produced an expansive understanding of how this war-for-empire was initiated and conducted which, in turn, allowed the reader to realize the expansiveness and significance of the historian’s subject.

Finally, there are always outcomes: The way an event turns out, along with its consequences. In history, the emphasis of understanding is not in memorizing its facts, but in the full comprehension of its significance to the present, as well as implications for the future. Without a recognition of outcomes, all history is trivial and, thus, of scant value to anyone. The problem with contemporary Americans with regards to how its history is taught, they have learned the former to successfully take a test, rather than to grasp the impact of the past upon the present and its implications for the future—the vital element which allows students to make the past their own.

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