18 SEPTEMBER 2019 / The Interactive Constitution: Classroom Edition, a project with fans across the political spectrum

Can you name the three branches of the United States government? If so, you’re in the minority. The National Constitution Center wants to change that.

A 2017 survey by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found unfamiliarity with the basic contents of the United States Constitution startlingly common. The survey found that only 26% of Americans could name all three branches of government, 37% could not name a right guaranteed by the First Amendment, and 53% did not know that undocumented immigrants have any rights secured by the Constitution.

There’s a lot at stake. If you’re in the United States, accessing the Constitution means accessing your rights. And accessing the Constitution is clearly not as simple as being able to find and read its full text. It requires being willing to approach and able to understand words written 230 years ago, and for most of us, that means having help in analyzing, interpreting, and fitting the Constitution to the reality of our existence.

But when Constitutional interpretation is hotly debated even by specialized scholars and at the highest levels of government, when discussion has come to be perceived as politically polarized, where do we turn for help in accessing the Constitution?

The National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution brings together scholarly interpretations from differing perspectives, setting them one alongside the other, in an easily accessible online format. The National Constitution Center, based in Philadelphia, is a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that works to ensure the perspectives shared in the Interactive Constitution are trustworthy and balanced. Respected legal scholars—including those who sit on the nation’s highest court—share interpretation and analysis.

Intercative Constitution

Now, with support from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) and others, a new Classroom Edition of the Interactive Constitution adds educational resources including videos featuring Supreme Court Justices, lesson plans, and other multimedia teaching content. The Interactive Constitution: Classroom Edition also encompasses moderated discussions between classrooms across America connected by video link. The Classroom Edition launched on September 17—on Constitution Day, naturally.

“The National Constitution Center is thrilled to launch the Interactive Constitution: Classroom Edition as American’s leading platform for constitutional education and debate,” said National Constitution Center President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen.

“This remarkable resource brings together the top experts from across the legal and philosophical spectrum, as well as videos, podcasts, lessons plans, online discussions, and live discussions about the Constitution with classrooms across the country to ensure the students have the civic knowledge that the Framers considered essential to preserving the American Republic.”

The moderated classroom discussions between students of different backgrounds and in different geographic regions of the United States are integral to SNF’s aims in providing support for the Classroom Edition. Encouraging civic engagement and civil discourse are a central focus of SNF’s recent grantmaking, and the classroom and other educational spaces provide an almost unique context in which to inculcate in developing citizens habits of respectful engagement and open-mindedness.

The SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, established in 2018, brings together experts from fields such as political science psychology, and philosophy, to foster open and inclusive discourse. The SNF Paideia program at the University of Pennsylvania is imagining a new framework for its project of educating students as whole people. The two major initiatives each aim to provide a forum for the civil discourse and to spark the civic engagement that are critical to a healthy democratic society.

         

        Matters for Discussion

  • Below are questions the moderator might ask the Classroom Edition exchanges. What do you think? 
  • Can a public school teach “creationism,” the idea that humans were created by a supernatural deity, along with or instead of the theory of evolution? [Details of relevant 1968 and 1986 cases]
  • Can a public school require students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance? [Details of relevant case]
  • Can the government forbid handing out leaflets on public property such as streets or parks? [Details of the relevant case]


Early results from piloting the Classroom Edition’s moderated class exchanges indicate promising results. Wrote one teacher whose class participated, “The students were timid at first because they were scared the other students wouldn't agree with them, but as they spoke, they realized they had similar ideas and understood that if they didn’t they would be able to engage civilly and agree to disagree.”

Even when participants’ ideas conflicted on controversial issues, the exchange of perspectives was felt to be valuable. “I think that the biggest thing that the exchange did was introduce them to differing viewpoints on controversial issues,” wrote another teacher whose students had a virtual exchange with a classroom in Illinois. “The class from Illinois had students with much more conservative political beliefs (especially around kneeling for the national anthem) and I really appreciated the opportunity to have my students hear/respond.”

The value of increasing familiarity with and access to the Constitution as a foundation for the reinvigoration of civic engagement and civil discourse is, of course, not limited to the United States. In Greece, SNF supported the Center for European Constitutional Law – Themistokles and Dimitris Tsatsos Foundation in implementing a two-year Constitutional literacy and civic education program, “Young Citizens and the Constitution.”

The program also included the creation of an interactive online platform called SyntagmaWatch that in many respects parallels the Interactive Constitution. SyntagmaWatch shares expert interpretation and analysis of central Constitutional issues and current events related to them in a way that is easily comprehensible and digestible by the general public. The platform also provides an avenue for the public to ask original questions related to the Constitution of Greece and get answers directly from respected legal scholars.

In Greece, in the United States, and in democratic societies around the globe, rifts between fellow citizens yawn wide. Deficits in democratic literacy and engagement threaten to undermine the system. There are no panaceas, but as a place and a time to start, the classroom and the moment when a constitution established the current system of government seem, respectively, like good candidates. The National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution: Classroom Edition brings both together, backed by the full faith and credit of top legal scholars.

“While there seems to be broad consensus that the U.S. Constitution is the single most important document in American history, with profound consequences in our daily lives, this foundational text remains remarkably unfamiliar to the vast majority of this country’s citizenry,” said SNF Co-President Andreas Dracopoulos. “Addressing this can begin in the classroom.”

Get involved!
Explore the Interactive Constitution online or download the app

Plan a visit to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia

Learn about the Constitution of Greece on SyntagmaWatch

Have a question about the Constitution of Greece? Ask an expert.