In the wake of the second impeachment trial of the 45th President of the United States, I was reflecting on what our students are supposed to learn from this significant and historical event. To be sure, there are many take-aways from a proceeding endowed with the gravitas of consequences, whether the ex-President was convicted or acquitted.
This “trial of the century” was conceived in an insurrection against the house of the people while members of Congress were certifying the election of a new President who won by a margin of over seven million votes. Rhetoric about a stolen election leading up to January 6th, the sounds and images of a mob breaching the Capital, and the second impeachment trial of a President no longer holding office were as surreal as the raging once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and recent deadly environmental disasters wrought by climate change. It seems like we live in a time where institutional norms have been shattered and what we used to consider or expect as “normal” no longer applies.
The need for educating our students about the Constitution is the most critical outcome of what has transpired on our nation’s stage, especially given the context of a violent coup against the rights of citizens protected by the Constitution. We should aspire for our students to learn the principles of governing established by the founders and to hold them sacred to our way of life.
Most of all, I would want students to know that the Constitution prevailed in this bloody battle that wounded our nation’s capital, killed police officers who were trying to protect the Capitol Building and those inside, including the former Vice President, and threatened our very liberty. Even if the transfer of power was anything but peaceful, our government did indeed inaugurate a new President.
Even if the Senate did not vote to convict the former President, and even if the trial itself was deemed unconstitutional by some, a case against the former President was presented and defended in the very temple of democracy under attack, and representatives of the people cast their votes. We want students to learn that democracy at work is resilient and accommodates divergent viewpoints before arriving at a civil consensus of the assembled consciences.
It would behoove us as educators more than ever to teach American history, civics and especially the Constitution in our classrooms in order for all of us to “support and defend the Constitution” and overcome any future threats to democracy. Indeed, the fact that democracy seems more fragile than we thought is another take-away.
In my former middle school one social studies teacher’s approach to introducing the branches of government sought to convey the sanctity of the Constitution. Mr. Purcell, an attorney in his former life who found his true calling in the classroom, held a ceremony to commission the study of the Constitution every year. Lead-up to this day started months earlier on the first day of school in his eighth grade American history course. When the special day arrived, a box was dramatically escorted to the front of the room and the teacher’s words conveyed the solemnity of this occasion as he unsealed the tabernacle that held the blueprint of our government. Each student personally accepted a copy of the Constitution from the box. It felt like a religious ceremony, a rite of passage in becoming a full-fledged citizen.
We want our students to know that through the exercise of their careers and future participation in our government, they will have the power, for good or for bad, to influence and lead. We would also have them understand that checks and balances, branches and bureaus, as well as a free press, are in place to hold elected officials accountable and to protect and preserve what President Lincoln called a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
What we have recently witnessed reminds all of us that the Constitution is a part of our heritage and our values as Americans. While we wish these times were different, the events that have unfolded and their repercussions provide our students not with some theoretical idea of democracy but a teachable moment. These events in real time continue to test the mettle of a nation and its Constitution in preserving the freedoms for which generations have fought and died and that continue to be a birthright of all citizens of this great country.