Chief Justice Roberts is right about the importance of civic education


Responses to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ year-end report – in which he focused on the importance of restoring the nation’s civic education – have been mixed. Some commentators are even speaking to the absurdity of such a superficial fix for the challenges facing our constitutional democracy. These critics miss a comparative look at the radical side of Roberts’ seemingly bland proposal for more education.

Consider, for example, movements in Latin America based on the power of education for contesting the break-down of the rule of law and repressive political conditions. In 1968, Paulo Freire penned the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” in which he recognized that education can be a practice of liberation or an instrument for manipulation, division and tyranny. Importantly, he recognized that education contributes directly to creating cultures that either build political cohesiveness or destroy it. 

We see this contestation of political cultures play out daily in the United States as we become more accustomed to the once infrequent declaration that we are facing a “constitutional crisis.” What is most striking is that while many Americans suffer anxiety witnessing a disregard for the fundamental principles of our political system, just as many seem not to worry at all.

We live in one nation with opposite political cultures that promote entirely different understandings of how the government should operate. Yet, only one of those cultures can be correct, and the attempt to have them co-exist is crippling this constitutional democracy.

The impeachment proceedings provide a clear example of these opposing political realities. Many people understand that constitutional law requires an investigation of the allegation that Trump sought a quid pro quo in requesting the Ukrainian government to investigate the Biden family, because if true it poses a great threat to our democracy.

At the same time, others were easily persuaded that the president did nothing wrong. These narrative manipulations leave many to disregard fundamental constitutional rules, or to accept their ad hoc revision. 

The result is that the future integrity of the impeachment proceedings in the Senate have been undermined, leaving many Republican senators more vulnerable if they choose to uphold the core principles of our constitutional democracy because they lack constituent support. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has declared that he would work closely with the White House counsel, in total contradiction of the core principle of impartiality. 

In my role as a human rights lawyer and academic, I have observed and written about this same form of political maneuvering in countries struggling to institutionalize constitutional democracies. Often, the biggest challenge to solidifying a normative framework arises when attempting to contest a political culture that resists it. For this reason, transitional justice projects recognize the need to educate the general population to “buy into” the core principles of democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Notably, these countries were trying to recover from violent conflicts because they lacked the strong political culture to support the constitutional rule of law needed to prevent harm to the very people the government was charged with protecting. 

The United States is no different. The democratic system is not innate or inevitable; it is learned by each new generation. Yet, national studies, including one by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, reveal striking levels of ignorance with regard to the structure and design of the government, and how it should work to protect not only the national interest but also the rights of citizens.

This is unsurprising given that civic education is not uniformly taught. There is no federal entity assuring the uniform preparation of all citizens to participate in our constitutional democracy. In this gap, other sources may indoctrinate the masses, as Roberts recognizes when seeing how social media spreads misinformation that undermines understandings of how the government must work. 

Thoughtful civic education creates the political culture that inoculates against this risk. Chief Justice Roberts describes how the federal judiciary is helping to address the need for civic education, though he suggests more needs to be done. He seems to suggest that voluntary initiatives alone are enough. 

Fortunately, the next generation may recognize the urgency of mandated universal education. A group in Rhode Island is fighting for their right to civic education in Cook v. Raimondo. Remarkably, these young Americans argue that they are not being adequately prepared to be informed citizens. The government attorneys argue the case be dismissed because the Constitution does not explicitly grant the right to an education. 

With such litigation on the horizon, perhaps Chief Justice Roberts will eventually find the opportunity to prove his commitment to civic education and lead the court to uphold a critical component of protecting our political system — just as the nation’s Founders envisioned. Such a ruling would be a radical step toward preserving our constitutional democracy. I hope it won’t arrive too late.

Lisa Laplante is a professor of law and director of the Center for International Law and Policy at New England Law in Boston.

Tags Constitution Constitution of the United States Democracy Forms of government Founding Fathers impeachment John Roberts Mitch McConnell Rule of law Senate impeachment trial U.S. Supreme Court

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