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Can Lawmakers Force S.C. Universities to Teach Founding Documents?

1924 Law Poses Problems, Say Professors, Administrators

By Rodney Welch
Wednesday, July 23, 2014 |
Does the State of South Carolina have any constitutional authority to mandate teaching college students the founding documents of the country?

It’s a question state colleges and universities have periodically faced since the passage of a 1924 law, which has once again become an issue.

Under Section 59 of the S.C. Code of Laws, all high schools, colleges and universities that receive public money are required to teach the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers, as well as “the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals.”

The law further states that students can’t graduate without passing an exam on the documents, “and, if a citizen of the United States, satisfying the examining power of his loyalty thereto.” The law further states that this instruction “shall be given for at least a year.”

Over the past 90 years, strict enforcement of the law has gone in and out of fashion. But recently, pressure has ramped up.

In a December 20, 2013 letter, S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms pressed University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides on the matter, noting that while USC students are required to take at least a semester of U.S. history, they aren’t required to take “a history course that includes America’s founding era.”

This past spring, Grooms led a State House charge to take retaliatory measures against the University of South Carolina Upstate and the College of Charleston for using gay-themed books as part of their freshman reading programs. Both schools are now required to spend the same amount of money ($52,000 for College of Charleston, $17,000 for USC Upstate) teaching the founding documents as they did on their 2013 reading programs.

USC Provost Helen Doerpinghaus has seen the matter come up before during the past seven years, but never so intensely.

“It’s being hit harder now than I’ve ever seen it hit,” she says. “In other words, the General Assembly seems more convinced this needs to be more enforced the way it was written originally.”

For educators, it’s become an issue of both academic freedom and practicality — whether the state can legitimately tell colleges what to teach, and whether strict adherence is even practical.

The S.C. solicitor general, Robert Cook, has said the law is “constitutionally suspect and problematic,” particularly the loyalty provision. USC President Harris Pastides said in a letter to Sen. Grooms that the same provision “could lead to varying and subjective determination of a student’s loyalty by each individual school, instructor or faculty member.” He raised the specter of lawsuits, for which taxpayers would have to foot the bill.

Doerpinghaus says the school has been meeting the spirit of the law both in classrooms and in Constitution Day observances, and that times have changed over the past century. There are Advanced Placement classes in high school, for example, where students may well have tested successfully on Early American history.

Also, the year of instruction — two three-hour courses over two semesters — would slow graduation down, she says. She points in particular to engineering students, who have to follow a very rigid sequence of courses.

USC history professor Woody Holton says the law is a relic of the post-World War I “Red Scare” era, when both the state and country were gripped by fear of Soviet-style anarchy.

“If the Legislature ever forced me to teach those documents,” he says, “the main claim I would make to my students is that the spirit of those documents is that the government shouldn’t be dictating what goes on in classrooms, even in state institutions.”

“To me, it’s very similar to the concern that people have about the federal government telling the local level what to teach in their schools,” says John Masterson, Interim Senior Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs at USC Upstate, invoking recent concerns over federal Common Core standards for K-12 students.

“I can speak very unequivocally that it is a troubling issue,” says USC Upstate history [online copy corrected] professor Paul Grady, “and that obviously there was a lot of political partisanship in how it was done, and the atmosphere in which it was done.”’

Both USC Upstate and the College of Charleston are trying to come up with ways to meet the demands of the Legislature.

“The College of Charleston is currently in the process of researching ways to comply with the General Assembly mandate,” Media Relations Director Mike Robertson says via email. “We fully intend to follow the Legislature’s directive.”

Masterson says USC Upstate is considering having speakers address constitutional issues.

And USC Upstate history department chair Rob McCormick says he’s all for teaching about the founders — but notes that dogmatic approaches to the subject often fail.

“You had some of our founding fathers who had no interest in states, and were very much in favor of a strong central government,” he says. “You had others who wanted a very different kind of relationship — tremendous power to the states. That’s part of the history of the United States.”

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