Stephanie Mencimer: Constitution Day: Not Just for Tea Partiers Anymore

Roundup: Talking About History

Stephanie Mencimer is a staff reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau.

Back in May, tea party groups began urging their members to "adopt a school" and pressure it to teach students about the Constitution—tea party-style. They set up webinars and provided helpful form letters addressed to school superintendents and principals reminding them of the congressional mandate that requires any school receiving federal money to teach students about the Constitution during the week of September 17. And they offered up kits complete with teaching materials from the National Center for Constitutional Studies, a nonprofit founded by Glenn Beck's favorite "historian," the late W. Cleon Skousen, author of The 5,000 Year Leap....

After thinking about it, though, I wondered if the tea partiers might be on to something. After all, it's really hard to argue against teaching kids about the Constitution. So I decided to take up the tea party challenge. Or at least, I ordered the school kit.

The kit arrived a few days later, replete with a pocket Constitution. The teachers' guide included fill-in-the-blank worksheets that encouraged memorizing such things as the preamble, the names of the original signers of the document, or the main topic of each article of the Constitution. The guide only really deals at any length with the first 10 amendments, so it largely ignores the entire 20th century. It does, however, include the favorite Skousen-follower detail about Benjamin Franklin's desire to start every day of the Constitutional Convention with a prayer (a proposal that failed, incidentally). Mostly, the guide dealt in the minutiae of historical details: names, dates, places. A quiz asked multiple-choice questions like, "Who served as the chairman of the Committee of the Whole at the Constitutional Convention?" (Answer: Nathaniel Gorham.)

Tea party leaders have urged activists to spice these offerings up by coming to school dressed up as say, James Madison. Overall, though, the tea party school kit wasn't quite as horrible as critics had warned, at least from a historical standpoint. The biggest problem with the suggested curriculum is that it is, well, boring. Really boring. Weighted down with quizzes about what the document says, it largely avoids talking about what it all means, or how it applies in the present day. Which is unfortunate, because the Constitution and its case law are anything but boring. The story of the Constitution is an epic drama, which includes fights over justice and equality, right and wrong. But the tea party version omits that part—along with any indication that the Constitution might have any real-life relevance after 1787....

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