The president of one of South Carolina's oldest and most prestigious public universities doesn't seem too worried whether undergraduates study the United States Constitution.
The University of South Carolina President, Harris Pastides noted that a state law requiring the study of the Constitution was "archaic." It does indeed need to be updated, but more than anything else, it needs college and university officials to embrace its spirit.
You only have to drive south to Georgia to find a different perspective. Students at the public universities of our neighbor to the south are also legally required to take a U.S. history class. They observe that law in Georgia: every college student receives at least some instruction on the Constitution and other founding documents. Georgia students are not fleeing in panic from the requirement. The schools there seem to be doing just fine, and it is a fair guess that the students, thanks to basic history lessons in the founding documents, are doing even better.
The picture in South Carolina is not very reassuring. Only two of USC's campuses require U.S. history or government, according to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni's college guide, "What Will They Learn?" (www.whatwilltheylearn.com). Overall, of South Carolina's twelve public universities only three have such a requirement. The rest leave it up to college freshmen to realize the value of taking an optional civics class. Neither the College of Charleston nor Charleston Southern University requires an American history course. Though USC's flagship campus in Columbia appears to be doing a good job ensuring students either take such classes or test out through AP exams, allowing those at other USC campuses to slide by is a significant deviation from the spirit of the South Carolina law.
Nationwide, these civics shirkers are driving a worrying trend. In a poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 38 percent could name all three branches of government, with one-third unable to name even a single branch. A 2012 survey ACTA conducted in partnership with GfK Roper showed again that only 38 percent of college graduates know the term lengths for members of Congress. Less than 20 percent recognized James Madison as the "Father of the Constitution." It is just this side of malfeasance for a public university not to take action to address this level of civic illiteracy.
In an op-ed to mark the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor recognized our nation's failings in preparing the next generation of Americans for the challenges ahead. "These failings threaten the future of our democracy," she wrote.
It is the appalling, widespread and dangerous ignorance of our history and free institutions that makes Pastides' relative nonchalance about civic learning so worrisome. He may think he's saving students from unnecessary hours in a lecture hall and tuition dollars by keeping courses on foundational documents and American history optional rather than required. In actuality, he's setting them up for civic disempowerment.
Thomas Jefferson knew better. Public civic education was the archstone of his vision of a participatory democracy.
Understanding one's rights is key to protecting them. Jefferson knew that those who don't know the law are taken advantage of by those who do. "To form the statesmen, legislators and judges" and "to expound the principles and structure of government" were among the very first items on the list of goals he set for the new University of Virginia.
Pastides' assurances to South Carolina legislators that USC ensures students' grasp of American history (in part through a one-day Constitution Day event) have a hollow ring. It is a wonderful - and reassuring - irony, however, that where the president of USC fails, USC students provide the right answer. It was the students themselves who first raised the alarm about the absence of a course on the Constitution, questioning the administration at a forum last year.
Pastides should give them the education they're asking for by bringing USC in compliance with the law or at least giving serious consideration to the aims it was meant to achieve. It would be a good first step in rejuvenating the participatory democracy Jefferson and others envisioned for this country but which, over the years, has been swept away by apathy and historical ignorance.
Alex McHugh is research associate and new media coordinator at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a higher education nonprofit dedicated to academic excellence.