Legislative Hearing Could Be Held to Address Law on Founding American Documents

February 4, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Signing of the DeclarationIf you ask public college and university officials in the Palmetto State whether their schools teach about the U.S Constitution and the country’s other founding documents, many of them apparently believe they have a right to remain silent on the matter.

But at least one state lawmaker wants a legislative hearing to address the issue.

The Nerve last month first raised questions about South Carolina’s higher-education institutions’ compliance with a state law (Section 59-29-120 of the S.C. Code of Laws) that says all high school, 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 same law says high school, college or university students can’t receive graduation certificates “without previously passing a satisfactory examination upon the provisions and principles” of those founding documents.

University of South Carolina junior Taylor Smith, whose research on the law spearheaded a statewide discussion about whether it was being ignored, told The Nerve in a recent follow-up interview that despite recent media coverage on the issue, nothing has changed – at least concerning USC’s core curriculum requirements.

“And I certainly looked,” said the 21-year-old from McBee who is pursuing a religious studies major at USC’s main Columbia campus.

Smith initially told The Nerve that he was surprised to find that USC’s core course requirements did not align with the legal code, contending the current curriculum was an “obvious violation” of the legislation, which has since been found to date back to at least 1924.

“Everyone may not agree that it is a good law for people, but it’s still the law. You can’t choose which ones to follow,” Smith said. “The legal system falls apart that way.”

The Nerve previously reported that a Jan. 4 email to Smith from the S.C. Department of Education appears to back Smith’s contention that the law requires the teaching of the founding documents. According to the email, which cites a review of the law by the department’s legal staff, the law would “apply to all high schools, colleges, and universities, individually as a requirement of their specific diploma.”

Several colleges and universities contacted for The Nerve’s earlier story either did not respond directly or at all to follow-up questions from The Nerve, including USC, Clemson University and the College of Charleston.

Debra Boyd, Winthrop University’s vice president for academic affairs, told The Nerve in a written response that the university has a “Constitution Requirement” besides “a number of courses that include the materials outlined” in the law. Coastal Carolina University for The Nerve’s initial story said it requires students to take one of two courses on the founding documents.

Francis Marion University in a written response said it offers a course on United States government as a general education requirement, though it didn’t specify whether that class includes instruction on the founding documents.

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville and a member of the Senate Education Committee, was reluctant to point the finger at colleges and universities.

“I can’t believe anyone is intentionally ignoring it,” he said.

“I think it’s pretty specific as to what should be covered,” said Rep. Phil Owens, R-Pickens, who chairs the House Education and Public Works Committee, when contacted by The Nerve.

“I think whether colleges are adhering may depend on whether they think it’s redundant,” Owens continued, adding that the law’s language “may need to be changed” to specifically require, for example, instruction on the founding documents at the college level only for those students who didn’t receive that course work in high school.

“That could be the conclusion the universities have come to – that it was redundant,” Fair echoed.

But that interpretation likely would not apply to international students who attend colleges or universities because they probably would not have studied America’s founding documents while in high school in their home countries – a point made by Smith in The Nerve’s initial story.

There are at least several thousand international students in South Carolina at any given time.

For example, since 2010, USC’s international student enrollment has increased 7.3 percent, university records show. As of the fall 2011 semester, 1,348 international students attended USC’s main Columbia campus; USC’s Beaufort and Aiken campuses together have 65 international students.

Clemson University currently serves 1,175 students from across the globe, according to university records.

There are 174 international students at Winthrop, 81 at Coastal Carolina, 22 at the Citadel and eight at Francis Marion. The College of Charleston recorded 237 international students in 2011, and Lander University has about “80 students from 24 different countries,” Sung-Jae Park, Lander’s dean of international programs, told The Nerve.

“I don’t think the best way to go about it would be to punish students,” said Smith. “The law is for the universities and colleges. The failure of compliance is on part of the universities and colleges, not the students.”

Given the ongoing questions about the law’s interpretation, Fair said he hopes to bring the issue before the Senate Education Committee. He said part of that discussion will involve the depth at which the subject is taught at the high school level.

“The founding of the country didn’t happen accidentally,” Fair said. “It took a lot of work, and we need to be reminded about this.”

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org.