CIVICS STANDARD ONE: Students will examine the structure and purposes of governments with specific emphasis on constitutional democracy [Government].
Students will understand that:
- Constitutional democracy as a structure of government developed from the tension between the need for authority and the need to constrain authority.
- Governments are structured to address the basic needs of the people in a society.
The key to understanding the purposes, principles, and generalizations called for in the standards is to begin with the question “Why?” For example, Standard One says “Students will examine the structure and purposes of governments with specific emphasis on constitutional democracy.” The purposes of governments, of course, are the “why” of governments. Beginning with the question “Why do we have government?” yields the question “What needs does government address?” The answer to this question is the foundational understanding for the benchmarks of the standard. The structure of governments are determined in part by history and custom, but mostly they grow from what reason and experience have taught societies about the organizational requirements for achieving the purposes of government.
You can derive the basic purposes of government by imagining a community and questioning what needs of a community might require authority to address. In fact, most famous political philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, for example) have used the device of the imaginary community to explain their version of the purposes of the state in terms so simple that even grade school students can easily understand them. All governments invariably address basically the same needs: security, order, and the welfare of the commonwealth. They all make, enforce, and adjudicate law to meet the need for order, organize the common defense, and provide services to promote the welfare of the citizens. The structures of governments reflect the ways governments are organized to perform these functions.
The basic purposes and principles of government — including the responsibilities of “citizenship” in a general sense — can be illuminated with the experiences of the students. Families meet needs of security, order, and welfare with the principle of authority, as do schools and communities. The themes of authority, obedience, responsibility — and the very important constraints on authority for the protection and freedom of the ruled — are found in the social context of every student. If students can learn how to see the purposes, principles, and generalizations suggested by the standard in their own experiences, they become easier to understand and retain and more relevant.
The emphasis on constitutional democracy called for in the standard reflects the enduring human struggle to find a way to protect ourselves from our protectors. The tension between the need for authority and the need to constrain authority is a prominent theme of history and is an inherent condition of life. The historically remarkable rise and spread of constitutional democracy evolved from both the abuse of authority and a rekindled belief in the desirability of individual freedom. The embedded concepts of a higher law that constrains the makers and enforcers of law (constitutions), accountability of rulers (democratic processes), and civil rights arose from an abundantly justified distrust of power and a growing consensus that one of the purposes of the state is the protection and promotion of the freedom of its citizens. New structures of government were devised to better fulfill and secure this new purpose of government.
The need for authority and the need to constrain it is the foundational understanding called for by Civics Standard One. The structures of modern governments developed from the experiences of people trying to meet these twin needs.