How the Constitution teaches students to disagree civilly
The motto for Great Valley High School and its 1,400 students in the Pennsylvania borough of Malvern, about 25 miles west of Philadelphia, is “Creating a new age of learning.”
It may be helping create a new age of conversation, too.
By all accounts, political polarization is growing in the United States, having seeped into schools during the pandemic over what steps were needed — or not — to protect children from COVID-19 and now spreading to issues including Critical Race Theory and gender identity. A survey by the RAND Corporation found that nearly 75% of school leaders around the country worry that political polarization disrupts their ability to teach.
That isn’t generally the case at Great Valley High School — especially not in Kim Barben’s Advanced Placement United States Government class.
“We as a society have become so polarized by partisan politics that it really impedes what we can do as a nation,” said Barben, who is celebrating her 20th year as a teacher, during the the past two of which she has taught AP Government at Great Valley. “It’s important for the kids to understand that once you pull the politics away, you go to the Constitution. That’s really the basis for our government.”
With support from the National Constitution Center and its Interactive Constitution initiative, Barben and hundreds of other teachers across the country have the opportunity to demonstrate to students that not everything need be political. They learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.
It’s a process that Barben’s students have found engaging and useful. Dami Babalola says the class shows how the Constitution still shapes government policy. Safwaan Ahmer says the class draws upon specific passages from the Constitution, which keeps the focus of debates on words and not on disagreements. And Emily De Rezende says she finds the class calming because it seeks answers collaboratively.
“So much of the news is like, you’re on one side or the other,” De Rezende said. “Then you come into this class, where it’s really not about the politics of today. It’s more about looking at what the ideals of our founding documents are and trying to apply the best moral standard to those words.”
“Everyone’s really just trying to do their best to interpret the Constitution in their own way,” she adds.
That reaction is exactly what the National Constitution Center was hoping for when it launched the Interactive Constitution in 2015. Yet its expansion, like so many things during the COVID-19 pandemic, was anything but planned.
“It is based on the idea of common ground, and it’s designed to be America’s leading nonpartisan platform for Constitutional education and debate,” said Jeffrey Rosen, the center’s president and CEO. “It brings together the top liberal and conservative scholars in America, nominated by the conservative Federalist Society and the progressive American Constitution Society, to write about every clause of the Constitution describing what they agree about and what they disagree about.”
That means you can read what the conservative Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett of the Supreme Court thinks about The Suspension Clause and where she disagreed with former Acting Solicitor General of the United States Neil Katyal, who served in the Obama administration and is now an MSNBC contributor. What may be more striking in these polarized times is that you can see where the Barrett and Katyal actually agree.
The National Constitution Center expanded the program to schools in 2019, funded by the Bezos Family Foundation, the Charles Koch Institute and the Laura and Gary Lauder Family Venture Philanthropy Fund. But the program really took off once students turned to virtual learning early in the pandemic.
Kerry Sautner, the center’s chief learning officer, saw it blossom during a virtual discussion about the First Amendment that included students from the United States and 20 other countries. Some students from abroad were confused about the concept of free speech, while the Americans learned that not every country provides the same freedoms theirs does.
“They build these norms together — how we talk to each other, how we give structure to that conversation,” Sautner said. “They can take these skills and apply them for the rest of their lives. And we’re seeing that, which is so exciting.”
The students soon began sharing their lessons and the videos of classes featuring Constitutional scholars with the adults in their lives, further expanding the reach of the program.
Sarah Ruger, vice president of free expression at the Charles Koch Institute, one of the program’s funders, said she hopes the program’s success can be scaled for more classrooms across the country.
“What gets me really excited about this program is the format that exposes students to a productive discussion of differing ideas,” Ruger said. “In a democracy as diverse as America is, we cannot — nor would we ever want to — eliminate disagreement. What we have to have is a world where we disagree better and have better-quality conflicts that drive towards innovation and progress and change rather than degrading and polarizing us in a toxic way. And there’s nowhere more critically important to do that than at the K-12 level.”
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