USConstitution

A bill in the SC Legislature would require students to read and pass a test about the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Emancipation Proclamation and at least five essays from the Federalist Papers in order to graduate from a state-supported college.

Our nation clearly is in the midst of a civic crisis. Even many of our best-educated citizens don’t understand the basic tenets of U.S. government.

This ignorance has real consequences, not only for the health of our nation but also for our individual mental health. When we don’t understand what the Constitution requires or allows, when we misunderstand the powers and duties of the president, the Congress and the courts, we become disillusioned when people act as the law and the Constitution require them to act. This problem is compounded by public officials who either don’t understand those limits and duties themselves or else deliberately mislead us. But we couldn’t be misled if we were better informed.

What’s lacking is a solid grounding in U.S. history. Not just names and dates — although some amount of that is necessary — but concepts: Why do we cherish religious freedom? How have we endured deep political divisions in the past? What is the basis for having three co-equal branches of government?

Clearly, we all need to be better educated. And while adults could use some remedial classes, the obvious place to start any sort of educational effort is in school. As S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms put it, “If students are to be engaged in our democracy, they should have some understanding of the founding documents, where our rights come from, so they can exercise their rights.”

The question is how we make that happen.

Mr. Grooms has been trying for six years to force students to pass a course in U.S. history in order to receive a college degree, and his plan finally seems close to becoming law.

It shouldn’t.

S.35 says students can’t graduate from a state-supported college unless they take a course in which they read the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation and at least five essays from the Federalist Papers and pass “a comprehensive examination, testing for student proficiency in the provisions and principles” of those documents. State law already seems to require that, but it’s a bit ambiguous, in many cases ignored and in all cases unenforced.

The University of South Carolina says it would would have to spend $3 million to hire more than 20 professors and 87 graduate assistants to teach the course. We’re not sure that sounds realistic, but we’re sure of this: The Legislature doesn’t need to be mandating what courses are required to graduate from college.

From high school, absolutely; it is, after all, the job of the state of South Carolina to provide a decent public education to all children. And in fact state law already requires a high school course covering those documents. And appropriately so.

But as important as college is, that’s not something the state has an obligation to provide. (That should be clear given how poorly the Legislature funds its colleges.) So it’s not the state’s business to dictate what a college education entails.

On a more practical level, we doubt that students who weren’t already interested would benefit much from a state-mandated higher-level course on U.S. history. Rather than trying to dictate the content of a college degree, the Legislature should try to figure out how to make those high school classes more compelling, so high school graduates have the grounding they need to become good citizens and, ideally, are inspired to learn more. Whether they go on to college or not.

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