Discussions of the Constitution regularly dominate cable news and political commentary, but constitutional knowledge among Americans is perhaps at a nadir. The NAEP U.S. history assessment finds each year that more than half of high school seniors score “below basic.” The 2020 Annenberg Constitution Day Survey found that just 51 percent of American adults could name the three branches of government – and 23 percent could not name one. If citizens don’t know the most rudimentary facts about their government, how can they pass on the blessings of liberty to future generations?
Fortunately, a joint program offered by The American Conservative and the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at Catholic University looks to correct these trends – at least among Washington, D.C. policymakers. The Constitutional Fellows Program is a highly competitive “three month course of study designed for Congressional staffers, journalists, and other policy professionals” that “illuminates the meaning of the Constitution and the prospects for its reinvigoration.”
Applicants who wish to be considered for the Fall 2021 semester must turn in their applications by August 31. (Click here to find out how to apply.)
Director Shaun Rieley says that the program aims to inculcate the “philosophical and historical context of the Constitution’s framing and ratification, with a special focus on the crucial moral prerequisites upon which it rests.” Rieley’s observation that the Constitution presupposes a moral people with the requisite virtues and mores for self-government is an important one that too many Americans today take for granted. As John Adams famously wrote, “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Emile Doak, executive director of The American Conservative, notes that the “Constitutional Fellows Program fills a critical void in Washington,” as many politicians and policymakers “love to cite the Constitution but too often do so without a comprehensive understanding of the moral and cultural preconditions that are required for self-government.”
As the program website states, “The Constitution assumes an entire view of human nature, society, and politics. . . . Without people who respect and embody the spirit of the Constitution, the Constitution cannot be sustained. Truly to understand the text of the Constitution it is necessary to be familiar with its historical sources and the view of life that it implies.”
Rieley says that the Constitutional Fellow Program not only gives early- to mid-career policy professionals “a way to engage with the Constitution and important texts that illuminate it” but also brings in “speakers who can help elucidate the document’s meaning and historical interpretation, applying those lessons to current policy debates.”
Over the course of a semester, fellows will take part in six sessions that explore the roots of the constitutional order in both classical and Christian thought, study domestic challenges such as radical democracy and socialism, and analyze how the Constitution should affect foreign affairs and economic policy. The program concludes by looking at contemporary challenges to the constitutional order.
Rieley points to experts such as American Compass’s Oren Cass and Andrew Abela, dean of the Busch School Business at the Catholic University, who can help policymakers move past tired cliches and reason clearly about how the Constitution should inform American politics moving forward.
Each session is conducted seminar-style by two or three leading scholars. Past faculty has included Johnny Burtka and Daniel McCarthy of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Bradley J. Birzer of Hillsdale College, Claes Ryn of the Catholic University, and Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame.
Students will prepare for each session by studying a carefully curated group of readings, which will serve as the launching point for classroom discussion. In order to graduate, students must attend five of the six sessions; students showing exemplary commitment will be recognized as Honors Graduates.
The Constitutional Fellows Program will help policymakers return their focus to the document that has defined political life in America. “To live under the American Constitution,” Calvin Coolidge once noted, “is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.”
Mike Sabo is the editor of RealClear’s American Civics portal.