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Why The Federalist Belongs In The Classroom

IP-11-1991 (December 1991)
Author: John Andrews and John Fonte

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Executive Summary

  • The Federalist can help prepare high school students for effective citizenship by teaching them the why of our American constitutional system.
  • Studying this work illumines the Founders key assumption that human nature is a mixture of worthy qualities to be valued in the political system and baser impulses to be restrained.
  • The problem of popular government is to provide for decision-making that reflects the will of a voting majority while preventing majority tyranny.
  • Our system solves the problem by establishing a republic which is extended, commercial, and governed through representation instead of direct democracy (example: President felt he had to consult Congress, not just opinion polls, before ordering Desert Storm).
  • Further, our system is protected by the separation of powers (example: Bush and the Senate sharing power over seating Justice Thomas), federalism (example: Congress and the states sharing power over Medicaid), and limited government (example: Supreme Court rulings on abortion ).
  • The Federalist insists man remains imperfect and in need of restraint, irrespective of the form of government. (Contrast the doctrine of human perfectibility under new institutions, held by the French revolutionaries and the Soviet Marxists.)
  • This classic belongs in schools because political practitioners from Washington and Jefferson to the East European democrats of today have acclaimed it as the best explanation of the best system on earth.

Andrews: Those Darn Voters

Legislators sound the alarm to voters about a growing list of federal programs mandated upon the states without funds to pay for them.

Executives in business and government complain to voters about Congress exempting itself from dozens of laws that everyone else in America must obey.

School boards worry that voter apathy and taxpayer weariness make it increasingly difficult to secure approval for the level of quality which people expect from public education.

Everyone who holds elective office fears a citizen backlash through the term limit movement, apprehensive that a burst of temporary frustration could work permanent change in our political system and produce adverse, unintended consequences.

Dont all these tensions have the same source? Isnt each just an expression of the basic concern that too many Americans are unprepared to exercise intelligently the voting power entrusted to them under our form of government?

Civics and government are still taught in the schools, of course; or at least “social studies” are. But there are all kinds of evidence that the job is not being done with any real effectiveness. The message is just not getting across.

Dragging students through a rote curriculum on the U.S. Constitution in eighth grade or eleventh grade, or whenever it is done, obviously falls well short of instilling the thoughtful grasp of republican principles which we need in citizens if the country is to avert decline. Young people must not only be given the what and how of the Constitution; they must also be helped to understand the why.

Education must include strategies for encouraging students to buy into our republican principles at a deeper level, hopefully to reason their way to the same set of conclusions the Founders and the founding generation arrived at.