OEDEL: Keeping our republic

June 8, 2014 

At the close of America’s Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was reportedly asked by George Washington’s friend, Mrs. Elizabeth Powell of Philadelphia, “Well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

But how do we keep a republic 227 years later, when Congress seems more enthralled by lobbyist cash than meeting citizen concerns, and the presidency seems more imperial with each successive president?

You can’t keep something well if you don’t know what you’ve got. That turns out to be a serious problem when it comes to keeping this country a republic. Our young people don’t know much about why our traditional republic has advantages over an imperial state.

I briefly questioned 20 Howard High School students arriving at school May 22. Howard’s 2013 graduation rate of 67.9 percent, incidentally, is second of seven high schools in Bibb County, just behind Rutland, so it’s something of a local star even if it still doesn’t quite reach Georgia’s average of 71.5 percent. One Howard grad this year is heading to Princeton, another to MIT.

After introducing myself, I asked two questions. First, can you name a founding document of the United States of America, a document that governs the government? Second, what does it mean that our government has a separation of powers?

I was an easy grader, giving credit for answering the first question with either the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. As to the second question, I didn’t require the responder even mention the division of legislative, executive and judicial powers, let alone federalism.

Of the 20 students randomly surveyed, though, only five got an answer in the ballpark. Three-quarters of sampled students had no clue about answers to either question.

I would have kept sampling, but the time to start school approached. While leaving, I was descended upon by a testy group of administrators, plus a campus officer. Though having been outside the school at all times, on a public sidewalk, only speaking politely with people willing to talk, I was angrily scolded by the posse.

“You can’t do that,” a fierce-looking official barked. Really? Rather than dispute the matter, though, I calmly responded to their belligerent questions, then left. I resisted the temptation to respond, “If a taxpayer can’t ask public high school students on a public sidewalk whether they’re learning anything about the republic from their studies, might we be concerned about losing our republic?” Unfortunately, I doubt those officials, like others nationwide, would have appreciated that concern.

So what can we do?

One creative answer has been provided by Mercer University’s McDonald Center, which thrives in helping undergraduates encounter first principles and the power of the original writings of the people who helped found our nation. It does that through reading groups, conferences, lectures and a special course.

The center has also test-run a two-week summer program for high school teachers to encounter those same principles and writings, while also thinking pedagogically about how to make crusty old documents, concepts and principles snap to life for our media-medicated high-schoolers. Several teachers who’ve experienced the McDonald Center’s program have raved about it.

Start-up costs have been borne by the Wal-Mart Foundation and Mercer’s AIM fund. It takes about $1,500 per participating high school teacher to mount the two-week program, including room, board and small stipends for participants.

That’s expensive. No donor has stepped up yet to make the program permanent. But what’s the countervailing cost of ignorance about our founding principles and leaders, and the framers’ legacy to us in the form of our Constitution? That cost could be the republic itself.

We spend billions of dollars annually on a corrupted political process. Washington is awash in cash designed to twist government silly.

If our goal is to keep a republic, what better way to invest our resources than teaching our young citizens about how and why their nation is a republic, not a monarchy? That is, as long as our next generation can manage to keep it as a republic.

David Oedel teaches constitutional law at Mercer University law school.

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