The race between U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren, probably the most closely watched U.S. Senate race in the country, has inspired passion and participation among voters across Massachusetts. But thanks to the commonwealth’s decision not to put U.S. history on par with other major academic subject tests, far too many students don’t understand what the U.S. Senate is or why this race is so important.
The Founding Fathers designed the Senate as a balance between the executive powers of the presidency and the popular passions of the U.S. House of Representatives. In our federal government, the role of the Senate is to fully represent the often neglected rights and interests of the states.
Each state – regardless of population – has two senators who serve six-year terms. It wasn’t until passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913 that senators were popularly elected. Before then, they were chosen by state legislatures.
The Senate’s heyday was the 1830s and ’40s when the body was dominated by three senators who came to be known as the “Great Triumvirate.” Henry Clay of Kentucky, the “Great Compromiser”; Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, the “Great Orator”; and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the “Cast-Iron Man” were all distinguished orators and parliamentarians. They battled over historic issues like slavery, protective tariffs for industries and states’ rights.
Webster was hardly the only great senator Massachusetts has produced. There was also John Quincy Adams, Charles Sumner, Henry Cabot Lodge, John and Edward Kennedy, and Edward Brooke, who was the first African-American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate.
As elder statesmen, senators have a number of powers House members don’t. They include approving foreign treaties before ratification, as well as confirming the executive appointments of Cabinet secretaries, military officers, ambassadors, U.S. Supreme Court justices and other federal judges.
Understanding the Senate’s importance requires knowing U.S. history. Sadly, on the civics portion of the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, only 7 percent of America’s eighth-graders could correctly identify the three branches of our government.
In 2009, Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education postponed a requirement that Massachusetts public school students pass a U.S. history MCAS test to graduate from high school. History had been scheduled to join English language arts, mathematics and science as a graduation requirement beginning with the Class of 2012.
What isn’t tested isn’t taught. In the wake of that decision, entire middle school social studies departments have been eliminated and history courses are being taught by English, math and science teachers.
“(B)y making the power of the senate a sort of ballast for the ship of state and putting her on a steady keel,” wrote the 1st-century A.D. Greco-Roman historian Plutarch, “it achieve(s) the safest and the most orderly arrangement…”
In these tumultuous times, sound Senate leadership matters more than ever. Isn’t it time to restore the U.S. history MCAS test so Bay State schoolchildren can learn how to perpetuate our deliberative democratic institutions?
Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow and Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.
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