“The Constitution ‘Hangs by a Brittle Thread’” and What Can Be Done About It! (Part 2) | Meridian

The article was originally published by Meridian Magazine.

This is part two of a three-part series examining Joseph Smith’s prophecy that, “the time would come when the constitution and government would hang by a brittle thread. . . but this people . . . will step forward and save it.” Part one examined the history behind the prophecy and presented the findings of a recent study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center surveying adult Americans, which distressingly revealed that only 26% of adults surveyed could name all three branches of government enumerated in the Constitution – the legislative, executive and judiciary. Alarmingly, only 15% knew that the religious liberty is protected by the First Amendment. A mere 14% knew that the freedom of press is secured by the First Amendment.


The Constitution is “hang[ing] by a brittle thread,” but there are two major fronts on which increased constitutional literacy can take place: 1. Public Education; and 2. Education in the Home. This column, Part Two, examines what can be done at the public level, and Part Three, appearing next month, addresses how we can become a constitutionally literate people by teaching the Constitution in our homes.


Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who directs the Annenberg Policy Center, declared, “The resiliency of government is best protected by an informed citizenry,” and added, “civics education and attention to news” increase constitutional literacy in statistically significant ways. Not surprisingly, participants in the Annenberg survey who had taken a Civics course were much more constitutionally literate than those who did not receive civics instruction while in school. Public education is critical in the battle to reclaim constitutional literacy.


Attention to the news via the media and interest groups, while often biased, increases basic constitutional literacy. For example, 86% of those surveyed knew that the Second Amendment protects the “right to bear arms.” Given that the National Rifle Association and other interest groups have extensively used the media to increase knowledge regarding the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment, it is not surprising that Americans know that gun rights are constitutionally protected. in Effective media campaigns can enhance constitutional literacy. 


Conventional media is not always a reliable source of constitutional information. Much has been said about media bias or so-called “fake news.” Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court recently warned, “we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside.  In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.”


Commentaries shared in social media are usually biased. Commentators regularly cited are often driven by the desire to make money. They do so by determining what their listeners want to hear and have discovered that angering their listeners by vilifying those with opposing views helps increase viewership and market share. This media manipulation tragically feeds confirmation bias, the process by which consumers of “news” seek and then share commentary that confirms their preexisting biases. Conservative and liberal commentators and those who share their views, therefore, often provide a biased means of gaining constitutional information.


Thankfully, there are more accurate sources for those who are seeking nonbiased constitutional information. The National Constitutional Center (NCC), for example, “unites America’s leading scholars from diverse legal and philosophical perspectives to explore the text, history, and meaning of the United States Constitution.” It does so by providing a “nonpartisan tool [that allows] learners of all ages to engage with the text of the Constitution, discover how experts agree and disagree about its history and meaning, and explore[s] arguments on all sides of the constitutional debates at the center of American life.” The problem with this source is that it relies too much on secondary sources and scholarly interpretations of original documents, often through a scholar’s ideological lens. Nevertheless, for one seeking a variety of viewpoints, NCC is free and easily accessed at https://constitutioncenter.org/.


The Bill of Rights Institute (BRI) can be accessed at https://billofrightsinstitute.org/ and is a better source of accurate constitutional information, because it relies predominantly on primary source material. BRI is regularly used by hundreds of thousands of teachers and presents constitutional materials in three forms: Voices of History, Founding Documents and Resources, and Documents of Freedom. Voices of History provides a free, “digital storehouse featuring the best of [BRI’s] primary source-based lesson plans.”


BRI also offers access to founding documents, correctly reflecting their belief that “secondary sources can help us understand and appreciate what [founding documents] say, but reading them yourself is the best way to understand the purpose of our national government, the liberties we enjoy, and how those liberties affect and shape our society.” Finally, BRI provides a comprehensive digital course, focused on primary sources, written by accomplished teachers. BRI’s fidelity to primary sources makes their free materials a treasure trove of teaching and learning materials.


On February 12, 2019, Thomas Friedman, Pulitzer-winning columnist for the New York Times wrote a column, “The Two Codes Your Kids Need to Know,” which indirectly captures the importance of the unique niche filled by The Quill Project (Quill), a collaborative effort between Dr. Nicholas Cole of Pembroke College (Oxford) and the Center for Constitutional Studies (Center) at Utah Valley University (UVU). Friedman began that article by noting, “the leaders of the College Board, the folks who administer the SAT college entrance exam [and the Advanced Placement program used by High Schools nationally], asked themselves a radical question: Of all the skills and knowledge that we test young people for that we know are correlated with success in college and in life, which is the most important?” He was surprised by their answer: “The ability to master ‘two codes’ – computer science and the U.S. Constitution.”


Friedman explained that the College Board’s “short answer was that if you want to be an empowered citizen in our democracy — able to not only navigate society and its institutions but also to improve and shape them, and not just be shaped by them — you need to know how the code of the U.S. Constitution works. And if you want to be an empowered and adaptive worker or artist or writer or scientist or teacher — and be able to shape the world around you, and not just be shaped by it — you need to know how computers work and how to shape them.”


Friedman added that the authors of the College Board’s study emphasized, “[T]he Constitution forms the foundational code that gives shape to America and defines our essential liberties — it is the indispensable guide to our lives as productive citizens.” The Quill Project, which can be accessed at no cost at https://www.quillproject.net/quill, combines those two codes in a masterful way, making it a unique and powerfully nonpartisan means of obtaining reliable constitutional information and education.


Upon entering the offices of the Center for Constitutional Studies in the Fulton Library at Utah Valley University, one is immediately struck by groups of students working arduously at their computers, accessing and developing content for The Quill Project, which makes primary-source material regarding the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the work of Congress in writing the Bill of Rights and the Thirteenth-Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments, and state constitutions, beginning with the Utah State Convention of 1895, accessible in engaging and distinctive ways. Quill users learn about the Constitution (substance) and the constitution-making (process) in ways that bring primary source materials to life in a non-partisan and fully accurate manner, untarnished by political bias.


Scholars, lawyers and jurists are already making use of this unique platform that brings the underlying proceedings and thinking of the Framers to life in ways that are earning Quill justifiable acclaim. I recently used Quill as the basis for a series of three articles published by the Deseret News regarding the constitutional roots of impeachment and the “high crimes and misdemeanors” language appearing in Article I of the Constitution.


With Quill, I analyzed the 56 times when the framers of the Constitution discussed “impeachment.” In two hours, I had a clear picture of the thinking of those who penned the words “high crimes and misdemeanors.” In turn, Dr. Nicholas Cole, the founder of Quill, was recently asked to give an educational lecture regarding Benjamin Franklin’s role in the Constitutional Convention. He used Quill to examine each contribution made by Dr. Franklin and prepare a lecture that was informative and well received. As a constitutional lawyer, I find that information that which previously took hours of disjointed research is easily accessed on the Quill site.  If it is accessible to me, it is clearly accessible to the rising generation, who are far more familiar with computer-based learning then I am.


The Wood Assistants, students working on the Quill Project provide content and also use Quill on their own scholarly projects. At two conferences hosted by the Center in 2019, our students shared their own work. In each instance, Dr. Cole and I were amazed, as were nationally recognized scholars who were presenting at those conferences, by the cutting-edge scholarship presented by our students.


Emboldened by the work of our students and encouraged by support from nationally recognized groups as diverse as the Bill of Rights Institute and the Library of Congress, we are determined to make Quill accessible to learners of all ages, in the classroom and the home. At our fall 2019 Constitution Week Conference, we invited AP students from local school districts to the conference and exposed them briefly to Quill and the Center. We were surprised when every seat (over 400 of them) was filled within days by local school districts, leaving us in the difficult position of having to say no to many schools and hundreds of interested students. We are committed to accommodating this surprising demand in 2020.


Given dramatically increasing interest on the part of local school districts, we joined hands with the School of Education at UVU to develop education programs for teachers focusing on constitutional literacy in the classroom and using Quill to enhance the depth and quality of that education. As a result of that collaboration, this summer we will host our first group of teachers for an extensive workshop regarding constitutional literacy and Quill’s role in bringing the Constitution to life in the classroom.


We recently provided instruction to leaders of the Wasatch School District, including exciting time in front of computers on the part of teachers learning how to use and apply Quill. Those teachers were given basic instruction by one of our students. Many teachers then turned to the Topic Overview, where, with the touch of a finger, they could use a word cloud to access information regarding some of the most regularly searched topics on Quill, including the electoral college, foreign affairs, state sovereignty. They were instantly enthralled, as was a high school student who recently came to my office wanting to learn more about the constitution. I simply directed him to Quill. A week later, his mother reported that her son had put down his devices and was engaging with Quill to learn about the Constitution and those who framed it. Each night, he regaled family members with his newly acquired knowledge regarding the Constitution.


Accurate constitutional information is accessible as it never has been at any other time in our nation’s history. Next month, Part III of this series will examine how and why we can and should dramatically increase constitutional literacy in an engaging manner in our individual lives and our homes. We can turn a brittle Constitution into a document that lives in our homes and will join President Ezra Taft Benson and living prophets in understanding and reverencing “the Constitution of the United States as a sacred document.”


President Benson testified that, “the God of heaven sent some of his choicest spirits to lay the foundation of this government, and he has sent other choice spirits—even you who hear my words this day—to preserve it.” It is time to take constitutional literacy seriously in the public square and in our homes, and the Lord is providing tools for doing just that!

© 2020 by Rodney K. Smith