Phi Beta Cons

George on Civic Education

Here’s a practical admonition by Robert P. George, from the Winter 2006 City Journal, once again relevant in light of last week’s ISI literacy report:

For all their academic achievement, students at Princeton and Yale and Stanford and Harvard and other schools that attract America’s most talented young people rarely come to campus with a sound grasp of the philosophy of America’s constitutional government. How did the Founding Fathers seek, via the institutions that the Constitution created, to build and maintain a regime of ordered liberty? Even some of our best-informed students think something along these lines: the Framers set down a list of basic freedoms in a Bill of Rights, which an independent judiciary, protected from the vicissitudes of politics, would then enforce.
It’s the rare student indeed who enters the classroom already aware that the Framers believed that the true bulwark of liberty was limited government. Few students comprehend the crucial distinction between (on the one hand) the national government as one of delegated and enumerated powers, and (on the other) the states as governments of general jurisdiction, exercising police powers to protect public health, safety, and morals, and to advance the general welfare. If anything, they imagine that it’s the other way around. Thus they have no comprehension as to why leading supporters of the Constitution objected to a Bill of Rights, worried that it could compromise the delegated-powers doctrine and thus undermine the true liberty-securing principle of limited government.

Where does this leave us?

And if teachers aren’t teaching the Founding’s principles, where will students learn them? They’re not likely to get any sense of the distinction between the delegated powers of the national government and the general jurisdiction of the states from any newspapers, national magazines, or television news networks, that’s for sure. Have the editors of the New York Times and the folks at CBS News even heard of that distinction yet? News travels slowly, true; but it shouldn’t take 218 years.


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