An Independence Day Special: Can the Republic Survive Higher Education’s Influence?

Tomorrow is the day we celebrate our nation’s founding—and the first time that a nation was deliberately founded on reason and the rule of law instead of on accidents of history. The central question of this article is “how are the founding and related topics treated in today’s academia?” It is a matter of crucial importance, since academia’s treatment of the nation’s history and fundamental ideals influences the future. As Ronald Reagan said: 

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.  

The answer to the question about how the founding is treated today is complex and often unsettling. Today, the Pope Center’s staff presents a few snapshots of the relationship between America’s founding and academia. 

General Education: Too General, Not Enough Education 

By Jenna A. Robinson 

At most American colleges and universities, students can graduate without ever taking a course in which they study the U.S. Constitution—or any other founding document. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni reports that only 28 percent of public institutions and 10 percent of private institutions require a course in U.S. history or government as part of their general education curriculum. 

In North Carolina, the story is similar. While many schools list “American History to 1865” as one of many options that can be used to fulfill a general education history requirement, no schools require the course. “Introduction to American Politics,” another option for students to learn about America’s founding, isn’t a requirement either. 

In fact, at UNC-Chapel Hill, the only U.S.-centric subject that students must study as part of the core curriculum is “U.S. Diversity.” According to the course catalog, these classes address “ethnic, generational, class, gender, sexual, regional, or religious differences” across the country. 

The North Carolina Community College System’s offerings are better—but still don’t require American history or U.S. government. However, the list from which students can choose to fulfill their social science requirement is shorter than the hundred-course menu offered at most universities. Two of the nine community college options include study of U.S. founding documents. 

In short, college and university general education curricula ignore America’s founding principles and history. So, it’s no wonder that 80 percent of college graduates who responded to a historical literacy survey couldn’t name James Madison as the father of the Constitution. 

A Republic, If You Can Keep It 

By Jesse Saffron 

Leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” 

To keep the American republic alive, it is essential to have an educated electorate knowledgeable about the past, current events, and how the government works. Unfortunately, it appears that higher education institutions are not producing that kind of body politic. 

At too many colleges, students can graduate without taking a single course dealing with America’s founding, the Constitution, or our republican form of government. The results of this neglect have been predictable. At times, they are cringeworthy. 

For instance, last fall at Texas Tech University, students didn’t know who won the Civil War, from which country the United States gained its independence, or that Joe Biden is the current Vice President. In April, students at the University of Maryland could not identify a picture of Ronald Reagan. And students in Washington, D.C., were recently asked to provide thoughts on made-up senators and congressmen, such as “Senator Ford Taurus” and “Congressman Jon Bon Jovi.” They gave serious answers, not realizing the joke was on them. 

One hopes that those videos are unrepresentative of college-educated people, but such findings of ignorance were corroborated in a 2012 survey of college degree holders. For example, roughly 60 percent of respondents didn’t know the length of congressional terms (six years for senators, two years for congressmen). 

Of course, it’s not just colleges that are to blame. By the time many students graduate from high school, they’re reading literature at 7th and 8th grade levels and their understanding of basic economics and history is adulterated by social justice propaganda. 

But the failures of primary and secondary schools do not excuse the universities. A 2008 Intercollegiate Studies Institute survey revealed that there were “only marginal gains in civic knowledge as a result of a college versus high school diploma.” 

If American colleges and universities—which produce the country’s future leaders—continue on their downward educational spiral, the republic will be easily taken from a generation that knows more about Snookie and Lady Gaga than the individual rights America’s founders fought for. 

Constitution? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Constitution! 

By George Leef 

The American Founding would not have happened but for the fact that a large part of the population had become angry at a government—the British King and Parliament—that did not respect their liberty and property. After winning independence, the people ratified a constitution that was designed to protect the rights of the people by putting strict limits on the powers of government. 

Sadly, you would be hard pressed to find courses in American law schools where students hear anything good about those ideas. 

Law students take a course called “constitutional law,” but it is overwhelmingly about the Supreme Court’s decisions in cases involving the U. S. Constitution rather than the meaning of the document itself. Over the years, a chasm wider than the Grand Canyon has grown between the intentions of the drafters of the Constitution and “constitutional law.”  

In an article entitled “The Uselessness of Constitutional Law,” professor Michael Paulsen argues that Con Law should be a “Great Books/Great Cases” course – “almost a humanities course.” He suggests that schools throw out the casebooks and “study the Constitution itself” along with the Federalist Papers

But instead of following that sound advice, law schools make their students read huge numbers of cases. Court decisions are praised if they’re based on the “living Constitution” idea, which amounts to saying that the courts should amend the Constitution to say what they think it should say through a murky “interpretation” process. Conversely, they will often hear decisions denounced as “backward and unfair” if the court was faithful to the philosophy of limited government and individual rights. 

And then there is the rest of the law school curriculum, where many courses focus on tendentious leftist theories about the law and promoting legal activism that is taking us back to the colonies under King George III. As I explained in this piece, law schools are now a breeding ground for lawyers who keep pushing us toward the sort of absolute despotism we rebelled against in the first place.

Politics (pol’-i-tiks) = Many Bloodsucking Creatures 

By Harry Painter 

It would have been easy for me to get my master’s degree in political science—with a concentration in American politics, at an institution called American University located in the nation’s capital—without knowing Thomas Jefferson from Jefferson Davis. 

Political science is not history, it’s not civics, and it’s not political philosophy. It is the study of political behavior and government as they exist today. But students need to know a great deal about those other disciplines to begin to understand political science. 

After all, if you’re an American political scientist and you don’t understand the principles that led to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, how can you knowledgeably analyze or comment on the role of the modern president? If you don’t understand the founders’ arguments for the Electoral College (and against direct democracy), how can you fairly observe its workings or compare it to other systems? 

In my required classes at American University, any mention of the founding documents was off-hand and grudging. For example, legislative gridlock was a popular topic at the time in national politics. My professors would continually lament the partisan atmosphere, claiming Congress and America were more divided than in several decades and that we needed Congress to get along. But, often at a student’s pressing, my professors would reluctantly submit that the division might be by design. Some people do argue, they would acknowledge, that the Founders built gridlock into the system, so that laws would not be hastily passed. 

But that’s not just an opinion that “some people” hold, as my professors suggested. It’s part of our system of checks and balances created to fend off the tyranny that comes with concentrated power. My professors were not trying to indoctrinate their students—they were fair-minded and attempted to keep ideology out of the classroom. However, most of them held an underlying, maybe unconscious, bias toward “getting stuff done” as the function of government.

Perhaps one reason students don’t need a background in the founding to get a political science degree is that their professors don’t have one either. It’s becoming almost an afterthought.  

It cannot be good for our constitutional republic when citizens getting advanced degrees in political science—and then going on to work at the highest levels of politics and policy—can complete their educations without an understanding of America’s founding principles. 

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here? Not Just Yet!

By Jay Schalin 

Has respect for America’s founding been entirely banished from the Ivory Tower? 

Not yet. And even while much of academia diminishes the importance of the founding, a counter-development is filling the void on some campuses. That development is the proliferation of independently funded academic centers—many with a focus on American History or political theory—that reject the antagonistic perspective toward American history in which our nation is viewed as inherently racist, sexist, homophobic, and so on. They conduct a wide variety of activities, from funding professorships to presenting speaker series. 

These centers take the actual events and the actual ideas that occurred at the time the country was founded at face value. This objectivity promotes a vision of the United States’ founding as the political high point of the Enlightenment, based on ideals of individual liberty and the dignity of man.   

This is not to say these centers are spreading some sort of one-sided whitewash of history. They strive for accuracy, including our nation’s warts as well as the beauty marks. “This is not some institution that sees nothing wrong with Western Civilization,” said Bob Paquette of his Alexander Hamilton Institute. For example, the Hamilton Institute holds and promotes the collected works of historian Eugene Genovese, who wrote primarily on slavery and the American South. 

The reception of these centers has been mixed on various campuses. Left-wing faculty drove the Alexander Hamilton Institute from the Hamilton College campus to the nearby town of Clinton, New York. But more of the independent centers have been welcomed by their administrations than chased away by faculty. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio, which has two members of its board on the university board and occupies an entire floor of the school’s main library.  

The number of these academic centers has been growing rapidly, fueled in part by a hunger for a truer representation of what our country is all about. As long as such institutions can flourish, there will be pockets of academia that give the founding a fair treatment.