Education

Letter | Let higher ed ‘punishment’ be used to open young minds

June 8, 2014 

Recently, the University of South Carolina Upstate was hit with punitive budget cuts for a reading program that included the book “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio” and for scheduling a performance of a satirical play on gay themes.

The political fallout was so severe that USC Upstate eliminated funding for its Center for Women's and Gender Studies. Those funds ($500, as it turns out) were devoted to the study of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.

Members of General Assembly then went after my alma mater, The College of Charleston, because the school had chosen the acclaimed memoir “Fun Home” as a reading for incoming students. “Fun Home” addresses issues of sexual orientation, but it is also about parents and children, life and death, and the pressures young people face in modern America.

The funding for “Fun Home” was cut. As with USC Upstate, funds were re-directed to support the study of the writings of our founding fathers. Public universities in South Carolina are required by law to devote instructional time to the key documents of our national origin. The law dates from 1952, when the fear of communism prompted the legislature to insist that colleges include the writings of our founders in the curriculum. These days the General Assembly has replaced communism with other fears.

Our public colleges should seize this opportunity. The Federalist Papers are an excellent resource for a state that deserves better governance.

In Federalist No. 53, James Madison writes that “no man can be a competent legislator who does not add to an upright intention and a sound judgment a certain degree of knowledge of the subjects on which he is to legislate.” Madison envisioned a well-informed legislature. He believed that those who make the laws owe it to the citizens to be both knowledgeable and ethical.

But where would these “competent legislators” come from? In an 1822 letter, Madison declared that state colleges and universities were essential for our democracy, since they “throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.” One of the key framers of our Constitution envisioned higher education as essential to a healthy political process, and public colleges as a way to educate future leaders.

This year, S.C. universities could fulfill both their legal obligation and Madison’s expectations by studying the description of the “competent legislator” in Federalist No. 53. We can ask our students to reflect upon Madison’s dream of a legislature of “sound judgment.” By way of comparison, we can ask those same students to consider how well our current leaders meet Madison’s standard.

Students could look carefully at Federalist #27, in which Alexander Hamilton declares that the people’s “confidence in and obedience to a government” is in proportion “to the goodness or badness of its administration.” Reading that, how might our young people act on Hamilton’s suggestion that incompetent leaders forfeit the obedience of the people? That prospect should be far more disturbing to our state legislators than a memoir about a gay teen or a one-woman play that acknowledges lesbians exist.

Such teaching is not about partisan indoctrination. Students of every political stripe deserve to know that our founders worked though the great issues of their day through reasoned discussion.

In the hands of young voters, the Federalist Papers are far more dangerous to our unfortunate status quo than any of the books our leaders have so recently attempted to repress. It is surprising that the General Assembly would want our young people to learn how to recognize the effects of poor governance. Thus informed, they might do something about it.

The author is an educator from Conway.

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