3-Minute Civics: Everyday due process

For the Monitor
Published: 2/21/2021 6:30:42 AM

Legislation was introduced in the New Hampshire House of Representatives this session to make sure high school students prove they understand how our government works.

With a hearing this past week, House Bill 320 mandates students earn at least a 70% – a C-minus – on the federal naturalization test in order to don their cap and gown and graduate.

We wouldn’t be the first state with such a law, and as an educator I can see merit to the idea. But let’s be clear about something: knowledge without understanding, and understanding without action, on any scale – starting with citizen-to-citizen – is no education at all.

Today we find ourselves, to quote the president, in an “uncivil war,” one where, in the broad sweep of national and state politics, tribal hostility is the norm, goodwill the exception, and where honest debate, rooted in open inquiry, unmarred by predetermined and choreographed outcomes, has been taken over by unending toxic spin cycles marking the modern media machine.

To counter this our country needs us, not just students and recent graduates, to recommit to bedrock principles of our system of government and apply them to the public sphere, beginning with due process.

The only principle to explicitly appear twice in our Constitution – with the Fifth and 14th amendments – due process is meant to guarantee we are treated fairly and our rights are protected by the law and its enforcers. Both amendments say we cannot be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”

The idea is broken down along the lines of procedural due process (essentially referring to our right to have “our day in court”) and substantive due process (essentially referring to our right to live life on our terms, within legal boundaries, without violation).

Due process, as a bulwark against government abuse, is a very old idea. We can trace its origins to the Magna Carta of 1215, specifically clause 39, which extended to free people the “lawful judgment of his peers and the law of the land.” Fast forward several hundred years and, here in the U.S. at the Supreme Court, it’s because of due process that school segregation was outlawed, interracial marriage is allowed, and we can invoke our right to privacy.

As mighty as those precedents remain, as words on a page they constitute Googleable information, facts stored in our brains. They’re important facts, no doubt, but it’s not enough to know laws and court cases. Certainly not now.

Civics education is meant to transform aptitude into attitude, as our ideals live only as long as we breathe life into them. It’s a neat thing, this government of ours; there is a transcendent quality where laws shape, and are shaped by, the customs and ways of the body politic.

Which brings me back to the times we’re in. With conspiracy theories fomenting in plain view and the possibility of violence unable to be ignored, our focus should be on how, in the civic space of our communities, we are extending the essence of due process to our compatriots and how we should respond if we are not being afforded it in return.

As we retreat into or try to bust out of our self-governing silos, let’s consider whether we are making space to understand the political “other” or whether we are depriving others of their say in our co-created court of public opinion.

It may seem impossible to consider seeking reconciliation with people who believe in counterfactual realities. It may seem like appeasement or legitimizing the absurd or treacherous. The alternative, however, may be worse, and figuring out how to navigate this, particularly with young people, is going to make a mighty compelling classroom assessment.

(Adam Krauss teaches social studies at Exeter High School.)


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