Taylor Smith is getting an education at the University of South Carolina, though not necessarily the one he signed up for.
The 21-year-old junior from McBee, who is majoring in religious studies at USC’s Columbia campus, says he was going through the S.C. Code of Laws one day when he stumbled across a law that surprised him.
According to Section 59-29-120, all high schools, colleges and universities that are “sustained or in any manner supported by public funds shall give instruction in the essentials of the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers, including the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals …”
The law goes on to say that “no student in any such school, college, or university may receive a certificate of graduation without previously passing a satisfactory examination upon the provisions and principles of the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers, and, if a citizen of the United States, satisfying the examining power of his loyalty thereto.”
In a recent interview with The Nerve, Smith said what surprised him about the law was that when he checked into USC’s core teaching requirements, he realized that the “two sets of requirements weren’t matching up.”
“The new one (curriculum) for 2012-13 is a very obvious violation of that particular part of the legal code,” he said.
Another state law, Section 59-29-130, says that instruction on the U.S. Constitution “shall be given for at least one year of the high school, college and university grades, respectively.”
It’s unknown whether Palmetto State colleges and universities as a group are complying with the law. The Nerve over the past week contacted a number of institutions, including USC and Clemson University, but received an answer from only one – Coastal Carolina University.
Smith said he initially debated whether the law left room for interpretation, allowing, for example, colleges and universities to not teach about America’s founding documents but to accept students who fulfilled the law’s requirements while in high school.
A Jan. 4 email to Smith from the state Department of Education – a copy of which was provided to The Nerve – seemed to confirm Smith’s interpretation of the law.
“It appears after one of our legal staff reviewed this section of law that it would apply to all high schools, colleges, and universities, individually as a requirement of their specific diploma,” Wanda Davis, a department ombudsman, wrote to Smith, forwarding what appeared to be an opinion from the agency’s legal department.
“However,” the email continued, “we are not involved with higher education so the person requesting the information may want to contact the Commission on Higher Education (CHE) to see if they have an opinion on this matter. It is a requirement of high schools and is also found in State Board regulation.”
State law (59-29-140), however, requires that the state superintendent of education – currently Mick Zais, who heads the Department of Education – enforce the teaching of the U.S. Constitution at both the high school and college levels.
Contacted by The Nerve, Renea Eshleman, a CHE program manager, reacted with general confusion concerning the law and Smith’s inquiry, ultimately contending that each college or university sets its own curriculum.
“The law is so old; it probably should’ve been updated a while ago,” Eshleman said, describing Smith’s interest as “odd.”
Agency spokeswoman Rita Allison, who also is a state Republican House member from Spartanburg County, told The Nerve that the CHE is not responsible for enforcing the law.
“That’s up to the General Assembly,” she said.
In a follow-up email to The Nerve, CHE Acting Executive Director Julie Carullo said she was not able to provide a legal interpretation, noting, “In reviewing the code citation, it appears that it may date back to at least the 1920s.”
Smith said Eshleman’s response didn’t answer his question, adding, “It’s not up to the universities to police themselves.” He questioned whether most university students, including international students, are receiving course work on the founding documents as required by the law.
“Even with the interpretation that high school would cover you, that wouldn’t apply to international students,” Smith said. “(They) wouldn’t have received constitutional education. It’s a big deal because it affects every student.”
A review by The Nerve of the history of Section 59-29-120 shows the earliest listed date as 1924. For decades, the law apparently required instruction only on the U.S. Constitution; in 1990, the law was amended to include course work on the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. It was amended again in 1998 to require at least an hour’s worth of instruction on the Constitution and Declaration of Independence in K-12 grades to commemorate Veterans Day.
Most colleges and universities contacted by The Nerve for this story evaded giving direct answers about their interpretation of the law. Spokespersons for USC, Clemson, S.C. State University and the College of Charleston, for example, either did not respond at all to The Nerve’s questions, or did not provide specific answers despite repeated requests.
A separate state law (Section 59-29-150), specifying the teaching of the U.S. Constitution, says that “(w)illful neglect or failure on the part of any public school superintendent, principal or teacher or the president, teacher or other officer of any high school, normal school, university or college to observe and carry out the requirements of Sections 59-29-120 to 59-29-140 shall be sufficient cause for the dismissal or removal of such person from his position.”
Contacted by The Nerve, Holley Tankersley, an associate dean at Coastal Carolina University who teaches classes in public policy and American political institutions, said Coastal offers instruction on the founding documents in two classes: Politics 201 and History 201, each of which, she noted, covers the Declaration of Independence, the U. S. Constitution and the Federalist Papers.
“More and more these days,” said Tankersley, “we’re faced with people in the public sphere who hear rhetoric in the media and from politicians, and they need to be able to know whether those politicians are telling them the truth. And if they don’t have a very good understanding of the system or civic education, then they’re going to be at a disadvantage.”
“A liberal arts education should include an understanding of the classical principles that are found in our Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and which I think are explained in the Federalist Papers,” he said. “This is the basis of our government and the basis of our free society.”
“A citizen is not fulfilling his potential as a citizen unless he understands what it means to be a citizen of the United States,” he added.
Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.