Is Political Freedom Our Primary Task?

By Cohen, Jeremy | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Is Political Freedom Our Primary Task?


Cohen, Jeremy, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


More than a half century has passed since Alexander Meiklejohn wrote in his preface to Political Freedom that "a primary task of American education is to arouse and to cultivate, in all the members of the body politic, a desire to understand what our national plan of government is."

There are many views of what our national plan of government is, of whether there is an obligation to teach it, of how that plan should be represented and taught in colleges and universities, and of whether or not teaching about political freedom-democracy-includes teaching students to participate in political communities beyond the classroom.

These are not idle questions. Robert Dahl's How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (2001) offers a decidedly uncharitable analysis of the Constitution as an instrument of democracy. Richard Posner's Law, Pragmatism and Democracy (2003) argues in the name of pragmatism for an elite, rather than a deliberative, democracy. Legislative forays in Colorado and in the U.S. House of Representatives to mandate the balancing of allegedly liberal faculty with conservative educators suggest sharp schisms among those trying to decide on a proper educational response to the Constitution's dictates.

Meiklejohn's view appears to offer a more comforting position for those seeking a libertarian outlook in which the press and the public play a fundamental role in a government of We the People. Meiklejohn's is a highly instrumental reading of the First Amendment right of freedom of speech, one in which the familiar phrasing of "Congress shall make no law . …

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