South Carolina students need to learn from our nation’s foundational documents

Patrick Maloney

August 3, 2022

South Carolina students need to learn from our nation’s foundational documents

This piece was originally published in the Post and Courier. You can read the original piece here.

It’s no secret that South Carolina is in the middle of an education crisis. The state is facing a mounting teacher shortage that has more than 1,000 classrooms without an educator. The severity of this problem prompted the state legislators to propose a measure that would incentivize college students to remain in South Carolina and fill these empty positions after graduation.

But beyond this widely known and discussed education crisis is another one that is greatly affecting the trajectory of South Carolina’s future. The state, like the rest of the nation, is failing to properly teach its residents basic civics and the foundational principles that have made America the freest, most prosperous and inclusive nation on earth.

Far too many Americans don’t know about their rights, their country’s history and what makes it unique from every nation that’s come before and after it. In fact, nearly half of America can’t name all three branches of the U.S. government, and more than a quarter can’t recall any of them.

South Carolinians can’t correct the mistakes of the present — or learn from the misfires of the past — if they don’t know about their rights or history. Nor can they formulate thoughtful, informed views of their country, what it stands for and what its future direction should look like without this knowledge. That’s why it’s so critical that lawmakers work to reshape the state’s education curriculum back to what its founders intended for it to look like.

Last year, the Legislature passed S.38, which will require all public high schools, colleges and universities in South Carolina to provide “instruction concerning the United States Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Declaration of Independence to each student” for at least one year at the high school level and for three semester credit hours for college students.

Focusing on this critical issue is long overdue. If handled in the right manner, it will ensure that our youths are exposed to the foundational documents that represent the heartbeat of the American story and experiment. But the Legislature also needs to ensure that our educators teach from these documents in an effective manner. Students don’t typically respond well to classes that hinge upon rote memorization and regurgitation. To retain the material — and to truly learn its underlying lessons and principles — they need to become immersed in the curriculum and have the ability to carefully analyze it, ask questions and formulate their own conclusions.

The Ashbrook Center — an independent academic center based in Ashland University — recently conducted its 12th free teacher seminar in South Carolina in the past year that made a powerful case for teaching directly — and exclusively — through primary-sourced documents.

This teaching approach, which has already received an A rating from the National Association of Scholars, is more engaging and informative for students because it allows them to wrestle with the words of the past themselves and make sense of that past independently. Since they are more invested in and intellectually stimulated by the material, it sticks with them, and as a result they become more informed and impassioned about their country and its system of government.

South Carolina’s current teacher shortage is a problem, but it also presents an opportunity for the state to work with the new educators that the Legislature is aggressively recruiting to reset the state’s civic education curricula and put it on a more fruitful, sustainable path — one that ensures that students learn the whole truth about their nation and what separates it from the rest. The Statehouse has already made significant leaps forward in this regard. Now, it just needs to take a few more steps to finish the job.

Patrick Maloney is deputy director at the Ashbrook Center, an independent center at Ashland University that seeks to educate Americans in the history and principles of our country through the study of primary-source documents