In a 1987 survey, about half of the American citizens polled thought that the phrase, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” came from the U.S. Constitution. Regardless of what one thinks of that sentiment, it would improve political discourse to identify it correctly as classic Karl Marx.
~Nick Down, Senior Program Officer, ACTA
The above quote comes from Mr. Down’s testimony in support of SB117 before the Ohio State Legislature. If you are not familiar with ACTA (American Council of Trustees and Alumni), it is a non–profit organization which promotes “…academic excellence, academic freedom and accountability at America’s colleges and universities.” Hard to argue with that in the abstract. Unfortunately, Mr. Down seems to be the one who needs to be held accountable for his lack of academic excellence..
SB117 was introduced “to establish the Salmon P. Chase Center for Civics, Culture, and Society at the Ohio State University, to establish the Institute of American Constitutional Thought and Leadership at the University of Toledo, and to make an appropriation.” As the holder of three degrees in political science, I welcome the idea that an understanding of the constitution, governance and civic responsibility is critical to any system based on the will of the governed. Unfortunately, so many good ideas have been hijacked by ideologues, particular members of MAGA world, to justify actions contrary to the intended purpose of the original concept.
One way you can tell when such hijacking is in process is whether proponents of an initiative either exaggerate, misrepresent or outright lie about evidence supporting their position. Which brings me back the opening quote and Mr. Down. Since he did not identify the source of the 1987 survey, I tried to find it on the internet. I did find several other organizations which cited the 1987 survey. Only one Education Week provided a link to the actual survey source, The Bill of Rights Institute. However, any information about the survey had been removed from their website.
A 2001 survey commissioned by Columbia Law School is also cited as the source for claims similar to Mr. Down’s. However, in June 14, 2002, Los Angeles Times reporter Tim Rutten suggests the results may not have been so clear cut. The question did not ask if the phrase was in the Constitution. It asked if the phrase “was or could have been written by the framers and included in the Constitution.” You know who else COULD have thought “from each according to his ability…?” Jesus. Actually, he kind of did according to the gospels and the parable about the good Samaritan.” Even though many of the founders were “deists” who did not believe the source of the Bible to be the divine word of God, they did advocate the values contained within.
Finally, when you look at the actual survey results, you see how intellectually suspect the spin has become. Thirty five percent said yes. But we do not know if that response meant they thought the phrase was actually in the Constitution or whether the framers simply thought it might be a good idea for the haves to aid the have-nots. Thirty one percent said no. Were they referring solely to the document itself or, through some form of time-travel mental telepathy, included the founding fathers’ mindset? The only intellectually honest respondents are the 34 percent who said “don’t know.” There is no black-and-white answer to such an ambiguous and poorly constructed survey question.
Mr. Down does not stop there. He further bolsters his case using information from an ACTA commissioned survey that “only 18% of college graduates identify James Madison as the ‘Father of the Constitution.'” The survey consisted of 15 multiple choice questions which you can still take on-line HERE. The choices were: Benjamin Franklin, Cassius Clay, Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. The Constitution was the product of a Constitutional Convention consisting of 55 delegates appointed by the states (with the exception of Rhode Island which chose not to attend). Should we really lose sleep if someone thought Benjamin Franklin, the oldest delegate at age 81, was the “Father of the Constitution?” One would expect to see this question on Jeopardy instead of a civics quiz.
Civics is better served when we focus on institutions and processes, not personalities. Take question #15, “Who is the current speaker of the House?” Options: Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan or Bernie Sanders. Depending on the timing of the survey, either Paul Ryan or Nancy Pelosi COULD be correct. If you take the survey now, the answer is the non-existent option “None of the above.”
Here is a more recent example of the difference between a process and personalities. Which would be a better question to gauge knowledge of the process by which we elect the president? Question #1: Who is the current president of the United States? As of September 2022, 61 percent of Republicans still believed Donald Trump won the 2020 election (Monmouth University poll). Question #2: Who certifies a state’s electoral college delegates and sends the winners’ names to Congress to be counted on January 6th? Options: Governor, Secretary of State, State Legislature or Varies by state law or constitution.
I raise the above question because several states besides Ohio are considering funding civics programs in K-12 schools and public universities. The value of these programs, as is so often the case, depends on the motives of those promoting the programs. In my home state of Florida, the governor and state legislature are mandating civics education as long as the curriculum does not offend their base voters. Civics education, especially in higher education, should promote Socratic dialogue, not lectures. Imagine a political science course based on issues the framers addressed if the convention convened in 2023 instead of 1787. If I were teaching that class, there would only be one requirement. Any evidence provided to support a student’s position must be fact-based sans misinterpretation or ideological spin.
Unlike some of the arguments presented by the ACTA representative before the Ohio legislature.
For what it’s worth.