The best way of promoting a return to Madisonian principles, however, may be one Madison himself identified: constitutional education. In recent years, calls for more civic education have become something of a national refrain. But the Framers themselves believed that the fate of the republic depended on an educated citizenry. Drawing again on his studies of ancient republics, which taught that broad education of citizens was the best security against “crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty,” Madison insisted that the rich should subsidize the education of the poor.These are dangerous times: The percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a liberal democracy is plummeting.
To combat the power of factions, the Founders believed the people had to be educated about the structures of government in particular. “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both,” Madison wrote in 1822, supporting the Kentucky legislature’s “Plan of Education embracing every class of Citizens.” In urging Congress to create a national university in 1796, George Washington said: “A primary object of such a national institution should be the education of our youth in the science of government.”
The civics half of the educational equation is crucial. Recent studies have suggested that higher education can polarize citizens rather than ensuring the rule of reason: Highly educated liberals become more liberal, and highly educated conservatives more conservative. At the same time, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has found that citizens, whether liberal or conservative, who are educated about constitutional checks on direct democracy, such as an independent judiciary, are more likely to express trust in the courts and less likely to call for judicial impeachment or for overturning unpopular Supreme Court decisions.
These are dangerous times: The percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a liberal democracy is plummeting, everywhere from the United States to the Netherlands. Support for autocratic alternatives to democracy is especially high among young people. In 1788, Madison wrote that the best argument for adopting a Bill of Rights would be its influence on public opinion. As “the political truths” declared in the Bill of Rights “become incorporated with the national sentiment,” he concluded, they would “counteract the impulses of interest and passion.” Today, passion has gotten the better of us. The preservation of the republic urgently requires imparting constitutional principles to a new generation and reviving Madisonian reason in an impetuous world.