by Joseph Sobran
Part 1: The Failure to Teach the History of Our Ancestors
One of the great goals of education is to initiate the young into the conversation of their ancestors; to enable them to understand the language of that conversation, in all its subtlety, and maybe even, in their maturity, to add to it some wisdom of their own.
The modern American educational system no longer teaches us the political language of our ancestors. In fact our schooling helps widen the gulf of time between our ancestors and ourselves, because much of what we are taught in the name of civics, political science, or American history is really modern liberal propaganda. Sometimes this is deliberate. Worse yet, sometimes it isn’t. Our ancestral voices have come to sound alien to us, and therefore our own moral and political language is impoverished. It’s as if the people of
So to most Americans, even those who feel oppressed by what they call big government, it must sound strange to hear it said, in the past tense, that tyranny “came” to
For all that, we no longer fully have what our ancestors, who framed and ratified our Constitution, thought of as freedom — a careful division of power that prevents power from becoming concentrated and unlimited. The word they usually used for concentrated power was consolidated — a rough synonym for fascist. And the words they used for any excessive powers claimed or exercised by the state were usurped and tyrannical. They would consider the modern “liberal” state tyrannical in principle; they would see in it not the opposite of the fascist, communist, and socialist states, but their sister.
If Washington and Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton could come back, the first thing they’d notice would be that the federal government now routinely assumes thousands of powers never assigned to it — powers never granted, never delegated, never enumerated. These were the words they used, and it’s a good idea for us to learn their language. They would say that we no longer live under the Constitution they wrote. And the Americans of a much later era — the period from
I call the present system “Post–Constitutional America.” As I sometimes put it, the U.S. Constitution poses no serious threat to our form of government.
What’s worse is that our constitutional illiteracy cuts us off from our own national heritage. And so our politics degenerates into increasingly bitter and unprincipled quarrels about who is going to bear the burdens of war and welfare.
I don’t want to sound like an oracle on this subject. As a typical victim of modern public education and a disinformed citizen of this media-ridden country, I took a long time — an embarrassingly long time — to learn what I’m passing on. It was like studying geometry in old age, and discovering how simple the basic principles of space really are. It was the old story: In order to learn, first I had to unlearn. Most of what I’d been taught and told about the Constitution was misguided or even false. And I’d never been told some of the most elementary things, which would have saved me a tremendous amount of confusion.