I hear this question a lot – and I think this is an important question for all social studies teachers to grapple with.
The first thing I would tell your students when they ask this question, is that as citizens of the United States of America, we don’t have one single thing that binds us all together except our Constitution. We are not a single ethnic group, we are not a single religious group, and we don’t have a very extensive history as a people.
I would also tell them that throughout history, it is the exception, rather than the rule, that individuals of different ethnic and religious groups can live together peacefully. But our Constitution enshrines the principle that government exists to protect the rights of all citizens, and has no legitimate power to deprive any citizen or class of citizen of their rights without due process of law. Our country, under the Constitution, has been more successful than most in allowing individuals of different ethnic and religious groups to live together peacefully; and when we have failed, it has been because of the failures of citizens to respect the equality of all under the Constitution, or the failures of public officials to respect just limits on power.
Finally, I would tell them that in a country as large as ours, it is literally impossible for any one individual, or agency, or government to know all there is to know in order to ensure the safety and happiness of the people. Our Constitution recognizes this, and therefore guarantees the principles of individual liberty, limited government, and federalism. Federalism simply says that we trust the people in the states to govern themselves, but our national government should have the power to do things that states could not do on their own – like defend from foreign invasion or establish and regulate a national currency and otherwise make it easy for people to do business with one another across state lines.
The principles of individual liberty and limited government mean that there are certain areas of human activity that belong to individuals to decide, and that government should leave alone – either because no just government should have power over those areas, or because government could not make those decisions effectively. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights do not allow government to control what political opinions we express – though tyrants in many nations around the world routinely imprison their political enemies. Our Constitution does not allow government to be in the business of making cars or computer software or smartphones, because it is not the place of government, and we all know they wouldn’t do it right! Innovators like Henry Ford, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs have benefited from being in a country where government has not stifled their natural creativity or entrepreneurial spirit. We all benefit from being in a country with a dynamic economy, a rising standard of living, and the ability to share our own political, religious, and other beliefs with those in our community.
These are the places I would start with students in communicating the importance of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Certainly the Constitution and its framers were not perfect, but I feel very fortunate to enjoy the freedoms we enjoy under the Constitution. I also hope that your students come to understand that they have an important role in making sure these freedoms are passed on to their children and future generations.
What other things have you shared with you students to help them appreciate the Constitution?