Alan Singer: Teaching About the Constitution

May 12, 2017 by

An Interview with Alan Singer: Teaching About the Constitution

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Singer, I want to clearly focus on a social studies high school teacher’s duties, obligations and responsibilities in terms of teaching about the Constitution. I remember very well in high school, good old Mrs. Ryan must have spent several months on the Constitution and it’s parts. In your mind, what does a social studies teacher in the year 2017 have to teach about the Constitution?

It is going to be a long answer. There are three key points.

(1) How active citizenship maintains and extends democracy in the United States.

In New York State where I was a social studies teacher, the United States Constitution is currently examined in a number of places in the curriculum. The engageNY Social Studies Framework recommends students explore the notion of rights as imbedded in founding documents as early as 4th grade. More detailed study beginners in 5th grade and students reexamine the Constitution multiple times, in 7th and 11th grade United States history and in a Participation in Government class.

The state Framework and the National Council for the Social Studies College, Career and Civic Life Framework both place an emphasis on preparing students for active participation in a democratic society on all grade levels. For me, this is key for every social studies classroom – preparation for active citizenship. That includes the ability to read critically, question assumptions and statements, conduct research, formulate opinions supported by evidence, present ideas orally and in writing in a clear way, and to engage respectfully in dialogue with others. It also includes developing a commitment to participation, reading and listening to the news, evaluating it, making decisions, voting, and even more importantly, activism. As a teacher, I want to help generate and support new generations of activists of all ideological strips. I believe it is the most important task for teachers to help maintain and extend democracy in the United States.

(2) The “original intent” of the nation’s founders was a Constitution intended as a living document to be reinterpreted by every new generation.

The original “original intent” of the nation’s founders was that the Constitution serve as a guide and process for decision-making, not a restrictive 18th century template to prevent all government action forevermore. James Madison, one of its principle authors, explained its purpose is “To secure the public good and private rights” and “preserve the spirit and the form of popular government,” that is “the great object to which our inquiries are directed.” It was the only “original intent” of the framers.

The idea that the Constitution should be understood as a “living” document subject to continual reinterpretation was championed by Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and one of the primary authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. In a letter written in 1810 that is quoted on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC, Jefferson explained, “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions, but laws must and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.

We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” The “barbarous ancestors” Jefferson refers to owned other human beings, denied women virtually any rights, and committed genocide against native people.

The most articulate opponent of the right-wing position on “original intent” was William Brennan, an actual conservative who was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Brennan rejected the idea that it was possible to know “the intent of the Framers” and argued that “We current Justices read the Constitution in the only way that we can: as Twentieth Century Americans.” He accepted the responsibility to “look to the history of the time of framing and to the intervening history of interpretation,” but felt “the ultimate question must be, what do the words of the text mean in our time?”

The “original intent” of the framers had nothing to do with promoting family values and religious beliefs or a women’s ability to secure an abortion. None of those things were mentioned. It had nothing to do with examining the minds of the authors of the Constitution to uncover their deepest biases and moral indiscretions. It had nothing to do with searching the text for the real 18th century meaning of the words.

(3) Balance in government to promote compromise and progress are the foundations established in the Constitutions to support democratic government and individual and collective rights in the United States.

The framers purposefully created a governmental system that balanced different forces, majority v. minority, different regions, States v. Federal authority, individual rights v. government power, and kept them in a semblance of balances that would make it possible for government, as stated in the Preamble, to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” This system did not always work well, there have been many miscarriages of justice in the past and it completely broke down at the time of the Civil War, but it is the system they created. Partisan gridlock, largely fostered by the Republican Party since the 1990s has now put the entire process of decision-making imbedded in the Constitution at risk. This is a major concern as Republicans in the House and Senate put party above nation and routinely approve outrageous presidential actions by Donald Trump.

2) Now, how much should they actually be required to read the actual document?

That depends of the grade. In upper elementary and middle school students should just read quotes that illustrate the basic principles of the Constitution. In high school students should close read and discuss particular sections. I recommend focusing on the Preamble, which explains the importance and obligation of an active government to address the needs of the people; Article 1 Section 8, which spells out the specific powers delegated to Congress and the national government and also contains the elastic clause that stretches the power of government; Article 1 Section 2 Part 3 on representation in the House where the three-fifths compromise, and slavery, are imbedded into the Constitution; the introductions to Articles 2 and 3, which very vaguely define the responsibilities of the Executive and Judicial branches; the Bill of Rights and the Fourteen Amendment.

3) What do students in 2017 need to know about the zeitgeist of the times in which the Constitution was written?

Three things.

(1) The Constitution was written during the decade immediately following the American Revolution. Its authors, the nation’s “Founders,” were deeply worried that consolidated power could produce authoritarian government such as they suffered under the British monarchy, but also of a dissatisfied and alarmed populace that could challenge the rights and property of the wealthy elite that was creating this new government. The immediate impetus to replacing the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution was Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts, an uprising by farmers and Revolutionary veterans who felt they were being treated unfairly by the state government. Interestingly, the words democracy and freedom do not appear in the original document. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison argues for the adoption of the Constitution in Federalist #10 because the balances and compromises are designed to prevent sudden and impulsive majorities (factions) from radically changing the system.

(2) A number of the authors were slaveholders and they were careful to protect their right to human property without specifically endorsing slavery in the document. But it is there, in the three-fifth compromise where the Constitution discusses the allocation of Congressional representation and “three-fifths of all other Persons” and in Article 1 Section 9 that prevents the federal government from blocking the “importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit” until 1808.

(3) Women were never even considered as deserving rights in the new nation. States were left to decide who had the right to vote in elections. New Jersey initially permitted unmarried women who owned property to vote, but withdraw that right in 1807.

4) Now, obviously, the founding fathers had a provision for changing, amending the Constitution. I remember quite clearly spending a LOT of time on the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments- are there some amendments that are crucial and critical in your mind that NEED to be taught?

The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Amendments define basic rights; the 4th through 8th establish due process of law; and the 9th and 10th place limits on the power of government over people specifying that rights not enumerated such as the right to privacy are still protected. Most of the later amendments are correctives or extensions, but the Fourteenth Amendment radically transforms the Constitution by defining citizenship rights and requiring states to obey federal law.

I have an unusual interpretation of the 2nd Amendment that protects the right to bear arms, and I think I am right. Defenders of the unrestricted right to bear arms like the National Rifle Association cite the Second Amendment to the Constitution as the bases for their right to own automatic guns and high-powered rifles. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Gun advocates think they have a strong case here, but they are missing three important things. Militias are supposed to be “well regulated.” “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms” does not specifically permit every individual to own automatic guns and high-powered rifles. There is no reason Congress cannot restrict the type of arms an individual is permitted to own.  To me, what is most important is this concept of the “people,” whose rights “shall not be infringed.” The “people” refers to a collective right to bear arms in the national defense, not an individual right to shoot people. When the Constitution discusses individuals, it refers to “persons.” Individual persons do not have the unrestricted constitutional right to own deadly weapons.

5) Obviously in 1776 or thereabouts, the founding fathers did not envision space travel, artificial intelligence, or (gasp!) reproductive rights, abortion and Roe V Wade. What kind of dilemma does this leave us in as Americans, and who begins the amendment to the Constitution process?

This is really two different questions. The Constitution contains specific guidelines for amending the document. According to Article 5, “ The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to the Constitution, or on Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments.” In either case, Amendments require approval by three-fourths of the states.

The more fundamental question is how do we understand the Constitution as a living document that stretches to accommodate a changing society. This issue came up in the first decade of the new government when Alexander Hamilton proposed, and Congress accepted, the creation of a national bank, not mentioned in the Constitution, but “necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers, vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States.” We see this in action again in the 1950s when military authority and defense needs are used to justify federal funding for the highway system and for education.

Although reproductive freedom was not an issue at the Constitutional Convention, women were not considered at all, the principles that protect reproductive choices are deeply imbedded in the fundamental law of the United States. The 1st amendment opens stating, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The fourth declares “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” The ninth amendment makes clear that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” rights such as the right to privacy and personal choice. This is reinforced by the 10th amendment, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” And because states initially believed they were not bound by these legal principles, the fourteenth amendment made clear “ No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”

6) Now, obviously, high school kids are not going to grow up to be lawyers or attorneys or Supreme Court judges. But what does the average American need to know about the Constitution – if they are say an electrician, a carpenter, plumber etc?

Electricians, carpenters, and plumbers need to be active citizens also if the rights of Americans are going to be protected. I think everyone needs to know and understand the principles I mentioned above.

(1) An active citizenry is vital to maintaining and extending democracy in the United States.

(2) The “original intent” of the nation’s founders was a Constitution intended as a living document to be reinterpreted by every new generation.

(3) Balance in government to promote compromise and progress are the foundations established in the Constitutions to support democratic government and individual and collective rights in the United States.

7) How difficult is it to actually GET an amendment to the Constitution? When should the Senate be looking at amending the Constitution rather than deliberating and waiting for Supreme Court approval?

It is very difficult. Must amendments came in bunches, the first ten in 1791, the three Civil War Amendments between 1865 and 1870, and four Progressive Era amendments between 1909 and 1919. The Women’s Rights amendment passed both Houses of Congress with requisite support in the 1970s but never secured approval by three-fourths of the states. In today’s partisan political environment I can’t imagine a new Constitutional Amendment being approved.

8) Okay, we have strict interpretations of the Constitution, and liberal interpretations of the document. Give us both sides of the argument.

I’ve discussed the liberal interpretation extensively already, so let me explain and critique the current conservative argument. Conservative is a difficult word to pin down. John Marshall was a conservative Chief Justice who greatly expanded the notion of Judicial Review in the 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision. In the 1850s and 1890s “conservative” Justices were deeply racist. The Dred Scott decision (1857) denied Blacks had any rights under the Constitution. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) validated racial segregation. Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016, was the champion of contemporary “conservatives.” Scalia was a man of narrow-minded bigotry who papered over his prejudices with a jurisprudence he called textualism and original intent. One of Scalia’s most twisted arguments was his concurring position as part of the Citizens United majority that tossed out a federal law restricting corporate donations to political campaigns. For Scalia, corporations were entitled to the same rights as people including “corporate speech.” The Citizens United decision allows wealthy individuals like the Koch brothers and powerful businesses to dominate United States elections through money “donated” to “independent” political action committees. Scalia argued his close reading of the text of the Constitution and deep insight into the nation’s founders also led him to oppose reproductive freedom, same-sex marriage, and affirmative action, and support the death penalty.

9) Gerard Casey, a colleague in Trinity College in Dublin Ireland, has written about the “rights of the unborn child.” Does the Constitution in America have anything about the rights of the (I may get in trouble here) fetus, embryo, or unborn child?

I think people who take this position are trying to impose their religious beliefs on everyone else. They try to hide their opposition to reproductive freedom, abortion, birth control, sex education, and human sexuality based on their religious beliefs and texts. When human life begins and should be protected by law has never been established scientifically, probably never can be definitively, and is a religious point of view.

These are some of the scientific facts that complicate the situation and expose their efforts to impose their religious beliefs on everyone else. Women are born with between one and two million egg follicles in their ovaries. About eleven thousand of them die every month prior to puberty. At puberty, about 400,000 remain viable. Another thousand egg follicles are lost every menstruation cycle. Of the approximately two million original “potential humans” in each woman’s body, only 400 ever mature. The rest are aborted through natural processes. If each of these egg follicles possesses a human soul, human’s evolved as a genocide machine.

The average human male produces over 500 billion sperm cells during his lifetime and releases between 40 million and 1.2 billion in a single ejaculation. When a sperm cell succeeds in fertilizing an egg cell, as many as a billion other potential human being sperm cells are discarded, aborted through natural processes. If you believe sperm cells possess souls, on the male side the “genocide” is many times worse than for females.

In addition, scientists estimated that more than 50% of all fertilized eggs either never implant in the uterus or fail to develop. Eighty percent of miscarriages occur in the first trimester, a large number in the first weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows she is pregnant. If anything, nature votes in favor of abortion.

10) Obviously the founding fathers knew about the fact that England could have invaded America 20, 30, 40 years after the Revolution, and tried to re-establish their monarchy in America.  We are now faced with terrorism across the globe. In order to “secure domestic tranquility” what should the U.S. be doing, based on the Constitution? Or am I over-interpreting what the founding fathers have said?

I want to reemphasize the balances built into the Constitution especially the balance between individual rights and public safety. Rights can come into conflict, which is why courts are necessary as well as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and public dialogue. Today, with the House, the Senate, and the Presidency, and soon the Supreme Court all under control of one political party, balance is threatened and with it Constitutional protections. There is a powerful statement by Benjamin Franklin that needs to be included here as a fitting conclusion to this interview. “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

I don’t know if you know, but I am also the rapper Reeces Pieces. Kids in Brooklyn call me Reeces Pieces because – I’m better than Eminem. My raps tend to be about history or political issues. This is a link to Reeces Pieces rapping about the Trump administration’s attack on the media and truth.

Obviously, we should continue this discussion in more depth — and address other issues in the future!

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