Three weeks after he died, Justice Scalia was scheduled to have given two speeches on Amelia Island, Florida, where I live. The audience for one was to be the lawyers at the local Inn of Court and the other was for non-lawyers. In advance of the highly anticipated event, the non-lawyer group decided to make the Justice’s talk the first in a series of lectures about the Constitution. After the Justice’s death, the non-lawyer group continued with the planned lecture series and expanded the mission to include volunteer classes for high school students. To induce student participation, the group – since incorporated as the US Constitution Scholarship Foundation (USCSF)—offered 2 $5,000 scholarship to be awarded to students who attended the classes, took a short exam and wrote the best essays on an aspect of the Constitution.
Within six months of its formal launch, the USCSF raised $200,000, half of which came from donations of $2,500 and $5,000. Many of the donors were grandparents concerned about the lack of civic literacy and the related, left-leaning tendencies they were seeing in their grandchildren.
Nassau County, Florida, in which Amelia Island is located, has only about 2,000 high school juniors and seniors. From that number, 40 students last year participated in the after-school program. This year, the number of juniors and seniors in the class has grown to 68 students. The growth is due not only to strength of the lectures, but to the fact that the number of $5,000 scholarships has been increased to 5 $5,000 scholarships.
Totally separated from these events, the Florida legislature enacted a new statute, effective July 1, 2017, that requires all students entering Florida public colleges and universities next year to demonstrate their civic literacy either by passing a new test or by taking a new course, both of which are to place emphasis on the Founding. The two state education boards overseeing higher education will develop the test and the course. In Florida, local school boards actually implement the general guidelines provided by the state boards. At this point, therefore, it remains unclear what the new law will produce.
At the same time, the Florida legislature also declared September of each year “Founders’ Month.” On September 14th, for Constitution Day, through Sunday September 17th, I spoke to the Jacksonville Lawyers’ chapter about the developments in the legislature and on Amelia Island. I also informed them that some years ago Florida became one of the first of about 18 states to require teaching on The Federalist Papers in high schools. In almost all of those states, however, that requirement has been largely ignored.
The limited impact of existing legislation suggests that laws requiring teaching of the principles and history of the Founding are helpful, but not sufficient to have much impact on the teaching of civic literacy in the high schools. In addition to “the stick” of legislation; it is useful to have “carrots,” especially in the form of college scholarships, to provide students and teachers with motivation that otherwise may be missing.
Ultimately, however, the renewal of civic literacy requires parents and grandparents to exercise their familial responsibilities and their civic duty to see that their descendants appreciate what separates the US from so many other countries that claim to be democracies.
Patriotic, non-lawyer citizens would greatly benefit from the guidance of members of The Federalist Society. That, however, means that our members themselves must better educate themselves by heeding Justice Scalia’s regularly expressed admonition that lawyers and law students read the WHOLE of The Federalist.
Admittedly, an effort to promote our country’s Founding is an easier task in north Florida than it would be in other parts of Florida and in many parts of the country. This area is a pretty conservative place where open opposition to teaching the Founding is most unlikely. Despite the obstacles one will face in more liberal places, it is well to remember that the effort is necessary because, as President Reagan often said, “Freedom … is never more than one generation away from extinction.”