If We Knew Our History Series

It’s Constitution Day! Time to Teach Obedience or History? September 14, 2012

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By Bill Bigelow

It’s Constitution Day! Time to Teach Obedience or History? (Article) - Teaching about the Constitution requires a critical and nuanced exploration—one that is alert to the race and class issues at the heart of our governing document. | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

A study of the Constitution should encourage students to think critically. Instead, mainstream resources, like the National Constitution Center’s “Which Founder Are You?” quiz, prompt students to focus on superficial characteristics of the Founders, and ignore profound issues of race and class.

Pearson-Prentice Hall’s high school textbook, United States History, opens its chapter on the Constitution with this Daniel Webster quote: “We may be tossed upon an ocean where we can see no land—not, perhaps, the sun and stars. But there is a chart and a compass for us to study, to consult, and to obey. The chart is the Constitution.” United States History tells students approvingly that Ronald Reagan and others have recited this Webster quote at celebrations of the Constitution.

This is the kind of on-bended-knee Constitution worship that has long been a staple of our country’s social studies curricula.

Sure, these days, most U.S. history textbooks acknowledge that the Constitution was not without controversy. Holt McDougal’s The Americans offers a perfunctory couple of pages on the debate between elite groups of Federalists and Anti-Federalists.But corporate textbooks present the Constitution as a wise inevitability, awaiting only the Bill of Rights as the icing on a delicious cake of compromise.

Students deserve a more critical and nuanced exploration of the Constitution—one that is alert to the race and class issues at the heart of our governing document.

I taught U.S. history for almost 30 years. In my high school U.S. history classes, students and I travel back to 1787, to the Constitutional Convention—but with a twist. In our convention, we imagine that instead of only lawyers, moneylenders, and plantation owners in attendance, there are also poor farmers, workers and people who were enslaved. Students take on these roles as they argue heatedly and build alliances toward their respective visions of the good society. We don’t attempt a full rewrite of the Constitution, but choose several controversial issues.

For example, students in their various roles consider whether the slave trade should be continued, whether Northerners should be forced to turn over escaped slaves and, crucially, whether slavery should remain legal.

In our more representative convention, despite pleas from plantation owners—often supported by other wealthy social groups—an alliance of enslaved people, workers, and farmers abolishes slavery.

“So what really happened?” students demand after our convention.

It’s Constitution Day! Time to Teach Obedience or History? (Article) - Emancipation Day Parade | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

It took almost a hundred years before the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ended slavery in 1865. Photo: Emancipation Day Parade, Richmond, Virginia, Monday, April 3, 1905. Library of Congress.

Their discovery: The Constitution does not contain the words “slavery” or “slave.” Instead, enslaved people appear euphemistically throughout the text as in Article 4, Section 2: “No person held in service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” Students learn from this nasty clause how the constitution they created differs from the genuine document.

Elsewhere, students learn that for purposes of congressional representation, someone who was enslaved was to count as three-fifths of a person. Every textbook I’ve seen refers to this as a compromise. “What compromise?” my students in the role of enslaved people ask. “We don’t care how we’re counted, we want to be free!”

Thus, the word “compromise,” so often and so casually sprinkled into discussions about the Constitution, comes into sharper focus for students. A compromise between elites can be regarded as indefinite misery for those at the bottom. (The teacher’s edition of Holt McDougal’s The Americans asks: “Explain how the Great Compromise and the Three-Fifths Compromise resolved conflicts”—neglecting to ask students to consider how this supposed compromise would “resolve conflict” for people who were enslaved.

It’s Constitution Day! Time to Teach Obedience or History? (Article) - Shays’ Rebellion | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Soldiers fire on protesters during Shays’ Rebellion. Led by Daniel Shays, a group of poor farmers and Revolutionary War veterans attempted to shut down Massachusetts courts in protest against debt collections against veterans and the heavy tax burden borne by the colony’s farmers.

My student Founding Fathers and Mothers also debate questions of economic justice. The struggle between debtors and lenders raged in the 1780s. A Revolutionary War captain, Daniel Shays, with more than a thousand farmers in western Massachusetts, shut the courts to prevent the poor—many of whom were former soldiers—from being jailed for their debts. Shays’ Rebellion cast a long shadow over the constitutional proceedings in Philadelphia the following year. My students consider whether states should allow farmers to pay debts in kind, with produce, to ease their financial burdens.

Again the alliance of the poor—enslaved people, farmers, and workers—usually prevails, and students search through the actual document to find what the men of 1787 decided. A seemingly innocuous phrase in Article I provides the answer. “No state shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts.” In other words, no payment in kind would be tolerated. Nor would states be allowed to issue paper currency to ease farmers’ plight.

Instead of regarding Shays’ Rebellion as an expression of grassroots democracy and a rejection of exploitation and unjust authority, The Americans asserts—without evidence—that the protest “caused panic and dismay throughout the nation.” Corporate textbook publishers seem eager to indoctrinate students with a message “compliance is good, rebellion is bad.”

It’s Constitution Day! Time to Teach Obedience or History? (Article) - Teaching about the Constitution requires a critical and nuanced exploration—one that is alert to the race and class issues at the heart of our governing document. | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryAs students compare the actual Constitution with their classroom-generated Constitution, they realize that the framers took sides. But why these particular sides? Inevitably, most students want to learn who wrote the Constitution and which social groups they represented.

This is another thorny question sidestepped by the textbooks. United States History tells students that the Constitution was written by “some of the most famous and important men in America,” but skims over their economic status. In contrast, I ask my students to look at where the writers lived, and what they did for a living.

Nearly 40 percent of the Framers—including, of course, George Washington and James Madison—enslaved other human beings. Many were wealthy lawyers, others successful merchants. Not a single “famous and important” leader was a common farmer or worker. All were white; all were male.

Asking students to think critically about the Constitution is not a demand for them to come to any particular conclusion about the Constitution and those who drafted it. Rather, treating the Constitution as a product of social conflict and written by partisans in that conflict, implicitly gives students permission to become thinkers. No longer intimidated by the document’s holy status, they can analyze and draw their own conclusions. And part of the analysis that our students need to do today is to ask of any social policy: Who benefits? Educators can introduce race and class as key categories of inquiry—an exploration that is essential if young people are to think clearly about everything from climate change to health care.

Today, we need young people who can look at the world from multiple perspectives—especially from the perspectives of those who may not be well served by our society’s arrangements of wealth and power. On this Constitution Day, let’s encourage schools to teach outside the textbook as part of a broader curriculum of critical thinking.


It’s Constitution Day! Time to Teach Obedience or History? (Article) - Author Bill Bigelow | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryBill Bigelow is curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and co-director of the Zinn Education Project. Fuller descriptions of the activities mentioned here can be found at www.zinnedproject.org. Parts of this article first appeared in The Oregonian.


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Published on: Huffington Post | Common Dreams.

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There are 5 comments by other visitors:

  • What about the Iroquois Confederacy and the Great Law of Peace that was the foundation for the US Constitution….the US History books don’t share this knowledge either.

    Response shared by Anonymous — September 12, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

  • “We don’t care how we’re counted, we want to be free!”

    Did the students every debate what would have happened if the 3/5 compromise had not passed? If this was not considered during the debate, the teacher failed at doing their job. If the compromise had not passed, they still would not have been free. Instead, the Union would either not have existed at all, or two nations – one slave-holding, one not – would have been formed. The South — the “Confederacy”, if you will — would have likely have kept people enslaved well beyond the years of the Civil War and would not have had the limits of the Constitutional clause preventing slaves from being imported after 1809 imposed on them. Also, did the teacher point out that “We don’t care how we’re counted” actually favored the cause of black emancipation, since without it the South would have had more Congressmen than the North?

    There have certainly been race and class issues that affected the drafting of the Constitution. But you have to actually teach what they’re all about, not just let the kids parrot a bunch of unthinking platitudes. At the end of the day it’s the teacher’s job to teach and get the kids to THINK, not just FEEL.

    Response shared by RonF — September 17, 2014 @ 4:51 pm

  • “My students consider whether states should allow farmers to pay debts in kind, with produce, to ease their financial burdens.”

    How is allowing farmers to pay debts with produce payment in kind? Is produce what they borrowed? Why should a lender loan farmers money if they cannot get money in return? A lender and farmer are free to agree to deliver payment in produce or livestock or whatever if they choose to do so, but why should the government be able to force one party to a contract to accept the kind of payment that the other party prefers regardless of what the actual contract says?

    Response shared by RonF — September 17, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

  • “Rather, treating the Constitution as a product of social conflict and written by partisans in that conflict, implicitly gives students permission to become thinkers.”

    Why do the students need to do this to give them “permission to become thinkers”? The writers of the Constitution left a LOT of writing about why they wrote what they did and what they intended it to mean. For a start, try the Federalist Papers – http://www.foundingfathers.info/federalistpapers/. Surely, if we are to consider “a more critical and nuanced exploration of the Constitution” we should consider the critical and nuanced exploration of it provided by the very people who wrote it? It you are going to consider their class and their race, why guess and speculate what effect this had on what they wrote without reading what they had to say about that themselves? Education should be based on facts, not speculation.

    Response shared by RonF — September 17, 2014 @ 5:05 pm

  • RonF makes some good points about looking at all sides and not simply taking one side. There certainly are good things that resulted from the tree-fifths compromise that would indeed eventually benefit African-Americans living in the south. Benefiting African-Americans (eventually) was certainly not the original intention of the three-fifths compromise. Regardless of the unintended outcomes, the three-fifths compromise was insulting to African-Americans, probably more so than simply not counting them (I think I would rather be completely left out of a system that had no benefit for me and actually benefited the slave owners than be counted a only slightly more than half a human.

    If you actually check the lesson that is linked you will find that the Federalist Paper #10 is included in the lesson. Mr. Bigelow does mention that the reading is dense and hard for high-schoolers to engage. i don’t know what students RonF has but I do know that my students are way behind in reading (and everything else for that matter), have a history of poor attendance, have an amazing lack of what I would consider common knowledge, generally come from poverty and marginalization in school, and certainly cannot comprehend the Federalist Papers without enough scaffolding to paint the Sears Tower.

    I agree that education should be based on facts, but it should also be engaging. Some students will easily engage with a tough, dense text and should go ahead and tackle the Federalist Papers (I read them in Graduate School), but to often the Constitution is overly praised. Blind nationalism leads to very scary things. Broadening student perspectives on what life in the colonies looked like for the majority of the population, not just the 1% writing the constitution, is invaluable to keep this country moving forward.

    I asked my students the trick question “what article explains who has the right to vote?” Of course, this does not come up until well into the Amendments. Critical thinking requires speculation, though that speculation should be based on facts. There were no African-Americans (free or enslaved) at the convention, there were no women, there were no Native Americans, there were no poor farmers (Gentleman Farmers like Washington and Jefferson are not the same). These are facts, and these are marginalized people who were left out of the drafting process, and who are marginalized and exploited to this day.

    Response shared by jrolliii — September 8, 2016 @ 5:39 pm

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