ERIC Identifier: ED410177
Publication Date: 1997-02-00
Author: Patrick, John J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
Teaching about Democratic Constitutionalism. ERIC Digest.
There are more than 100 democracies in the world today (Diamond 1996, 20).
All but three of them--Great Britain, Israel, and New Zealand--have written
constitutions. And even the three democracies without written constitutions
exemplify constitutionalism, which is a critical indicator of a modern
CONSTITUTIONS AND CONSTITUTIONALISM
constitution is the supreme law that legitimates, limits, and empowers the
government, which, if democratic, is based on periodic and competitive election
of representatives by virtually all the adult population. It articulates the
structure of government, procedures for selection and replacement of government
officials, and distribution and limitations of the powers of government.
Constitutionalism means limited government and the rule of law to prevent the
arbitrary, abusive use of power, to protect human rights, to support democratic
procedures in elections and public policy making, and to achieve a community's
shared purposes. Constitutionalism in a democracy, therefore, both limits and
empowers government of, by, and for the people. Through the constitution, the
people grant power to the government to act effectively for the public good. The
people also set constitutional limits on the power of the democratic government
in order to prevent tyranny and to protect human rights (Holmes 1995, 299). The
rights of individuals to life, liberty, and property are at risk if the
government is either too strong or too weak. Both tyranny and anarchy pose
critical dangers to security for individual rights.
An effective democratic constitutional government is sufficiently empowered
by people to secure their rights against foreign invaders or domestic predators.
Its power is also sufficiently limited by people to secure their rights against
the possibility of oppressive government officials. A continuing challenge of
democratic constitutionalism is determining how to simultaneously empower and
limit the government in order to secure the rights of all persons in the polity.
Not every government with a written constitution exemplifies democratic
constitutionalism. Many constitutions have presented merely the appearance of
democratic government with little or no correspondence to reality. Soviet-style
constitutions of the recent past, for example, grandly proclaimed all kinds of
rights while guaranteeing none of them. Only governments that usually, if not
perfectly, function in terms of a constitution to which the people have
consented may be considered examples of democratic constitutionalism.
TEACHING THE CONCEPT OF CONSTITUTIONALISM
government will not endure without public understanding and support for the
ideas that undergird it. And prominent among the principles of modern democracy
is constitutionalism. So primary objectives of civic education for democratic
citizenship are to enable students (1) to acquire knowledge of
constitutionalism, (2) to use this knowledge to think and act effectively about
issues of governance, and (3) to become committed to the maintenance and
improvement of constitutionalism in their polity.
Students should be taught to identify and explain why particular political
systems are constitutional democracies or why they are not. Through this kind of
concept-learning activity, they will better understand what democratic
constitutionalism is. Further, they should be challenged to apply their concept
of constitutionalism to analyze and evaluate case studies about the procedures
and policies of their government.
Analysis of United States Supreme Court cases is an especially effective
method of teaching about democratic constitutionalism. Through its power of
judicial review, the Supreme Court can invalidate acts of government that
violate the United States Constitution. Teachers should use Supreme Court cases
to stimulate critical thinking and inquiry among learners about constitutional
issues of the past and present.
USING INTERNATIONAL COMPARISONS
Another effective method
of teaching about democratic constitutions and constitutionalism is
international comparison (Hall 1993). Learners in the United States, for
example, should be challenged to compare their constitution and practices of
democratic constitutionalism with those of other constitutional democracies of
the contemporary world.
Teachers can use common attributes to help learners systematically compare
the written constitutions and constitutionalism in different countries. Six
common attributes, for example, are (1) structure of government, (2)
distribution of powers among executive, legislative, and judicial branches of
government, (3) limitations on powers of the branches of government, (4)
guarantees of human rights, (5) procedures for electing, appointing, and
replacing government officials, and (6) methods of constitutional amendment or
change. These attributes, applicable to all democratic constitutions, are
foundations for comparative analysis. Through this kind of international
comparison, students can learn that common characteristics of modern
constitutional democracies are practiced in similar and different ways
throughout the world. An outcome of teaching and learning comparatively about
democratic constitutionalism is broader and deeper knowledge of the concept.
Students are likely to enhance comprehension of their own government while
globally expanding their understanding of democratic principles, including
constitutionalism. Further, ethnocentric tendencies are likely to diminish as
students learn the variety of ways that common facets of democratic
constitutionalism are practiced.
An excellent resource for comparative analysis of constitutions and
constitutionalism is CONSTITUTIONS OF THE WORLD by Robert L. Maddex. This book
was published in 1995 by Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1414 22nd Street, NW,
Washington, DC 20037. The author of this volume uses several common categories
systematically to present essential similarities and differences in
constitutions of 80 countries.
USING INTERNET RESOURCES
An abundance of useful data on
constitutionalism can be obtained through the Internet. The World Wide Web
rapidly is becoming a valuable source of information for civic educators and
their students. For example, copies of the constitutions of many countries can
be found at this URL site:
Copies of the constitutions of the 50 states of the United States of America
can be located at this Web address:
The availability of many constitutions through the Internet makes feasible
the regular use of comparative analysis in teaching and learning about
democratic constitutionalism. Another useful web site is
http://www.the-spa.com/constitution/cs_found.htm which offers links to
various resources including the United States Constitution, Supreme Court
decisions, and THE FEDERALIST PAPERS.
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES
Diamond, Larry. "Is the
Third Wave Over?" JOURNAL OF DEMOCRACY 7 (July 1996): 20-37.
Hall, Kermit L. THE POWER OF COMPARISON IN TEACHING ABOUT CONSTITUTIONALISM,
LAW, AND DEMOCRACY. Paper presented to the Conference on Education for Democracy
at The Mershon Center of The Ohio State University, March 4-7, 1993. ED 372 025.
Holmes, Stephen. "Constitutionalism." In Seymour Martin Lipset, ed. THE
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF DEMOCRACY, 299-306. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly,
Meyer, Howard N. "A Global Look at Law and Order." SOCIAL EDUCATION 58
(November/December 1994): 417-419. EJ 495 538.
Pallasch, Brian. CONSTITUTIONAL AND NON-CONSTITUTIONAL GOVERNMENTS:
SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES THROUGHOUT HISTORY. Washington, DC: Council for the
Advancement of Citizenship, 1990. ED 336 332.
Patrick, John J. THE YOUNG OXFORD COMPANION TO THE SUPREME COURT OF THE
UNITED STATES. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. ED 368 670.
Patrick, John J. "CONSTITUTIONALISM IN EDUCATION FOR DEMOCRACY: THE
CONTINUING RELEVANCE OF ARGUMENTS ON CONSTITUTIONAL GOVERNMENT OF THE AMERICAN
FOUNDING ERA." Paper presented to the Conference on Education for Democracy at
The Mershon Center of The Ohio State University, March 4-7, 1993. ED 359 118.
Quigley, Charles N., and Others, eds. NATIONAL STANDARDS FOR CIVICS AND
GOVERNMENT. Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education, 1994. ED 375 074.
Robinson, Donald. "World Studies Through a Comparative Constitutional Prism."
UPDATE ON LAW-RELATED EDUCATION 16 (Fall 1992): 5-7. EJ 469 718.
Varat, Jonathon D. REFLECTIONS ON THE ESTABLISHMENT OF CONSTITUTIONAL
GOVERNMENT IN EASTERN EUROPE. Paper presented to the International Conference on
Western Democracy and Eastern Europe in Berlin, Germany, October 13-18, 1991. ED