What are the most important parts of the US Constitution? What do they say?

Some things you can’t make up. One day, as a Berkman Fellow at Harvard Law School, I had the perverse urge to test knowledge of the Preamble on the part of Harvard law school students. I was appalled at how few were able to recite it or summarize its contents. Then I decided to test Harvard Law School professors.

A similar result. Then most astoundingly I met separately with three professors of US Constitutional Law and found that not one of them passed the test either. Only one of the three was embarrassed. The other two had an excuse: their job was to teach students to write appellate briefs and the Preamble was never cited there.

Another canary in the coal mine of academia. So what is the Preamble and why should anyone care?

The Constitution has three basic parts: the Preamble, the Articles, and the Amendments. The Preamble is important because it lays out the reasons for having a government. The best way to teach the Preamble is to, on the first day of class, ask the students to write down why you think we have a government.

You should do this right now before proceeding. 

Once you have completed this assignment compare your list with the Founders’ list and note any discrepancies.  What is missing from the Founders’ enumeration from an 18th century perspective? from a 21st century perspective?

After the Preamble come the Articles. Do your best to summarize each before you go to the text itself and then compare what they actually do to what you had thought.

Then write down what you think the First Amendment says before actually going to the text to see what it actually says. The precise wording matters. So does the order in which the rights are listed. Does the First Amendmennt apply to all levels of government or just the Federal government? Does it dictate a strict wall of separation of church and state at all levels?

After the First Amendment, what is the most important Amendment and why?

What is the case for the 14th Amendment? What is the incorporation doctrine?

These are questions eighth graders should be able to answer. If you can’t please consult the text of the Constitution. If you need a helping hand, please consult the best annotated version I know of: Linda Monk’s The Words We Live By. Civic literacy requires work. No pain, no gain.