Blogs > Cliopatria > Constitution Day

May 31, 2005 7:30 am

Constitution Day

Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed reports that many colleges are relieved by the lax requirements for Constitution Day. On September 17, thanks to a provision added to an appropriations bill by Senator Robert Byrd, all schools that receive federal funding will be required to offer an instructional program on the Constitution.

Full disclosure, as embarrassing as it might be: When I first heard of this idea in passing, it didn't strike me as particularly troublesome. Maybe too many nights of watching Jay Leno ask people on the street basic facts about civic life, only to receive ridiculous answers, has had that effect on me.

But my wife, who is a high school history teacher, quickly disabused me of the notion that Constitution Day is a good idea. This particular provision, perhaps, can be shrugged off as the idiosyncratic indulgence of a distinguished senator. But given the political tenor of current debates about American history, and the apparent willingness of the party in power to set the Senate agenda over the objections of people like Byrd, how long will it be before the provision requires schools to teach about the origins of our"Christian nation," or simply specifies that a day must be used to concentrate on the Second Amendment?

Loose requirements or no, this strikes me as a precedent that should cause some concern.

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Anne Zook - 6/1/2005

I think civics classes are an excellent idea. I can't imagine how anyone thinks youngsters can grow up to become informed, concerned, active citizens if they're not taught how. (Yes, some of it can and should happen in the home, but what better use for education than to educate the student about the country they live in and their responsibility to it?)

Derek Charles Catsam - 5/31/2005

Evan --
Oh -- that's easy. You are obviously Godless Communists.

Kevin C. Murphy - 5/31/2005

I agree that this "Constitution Day" idea has the potential for much abuse, and will basically be seen as a vacation from the regular curriculum. Still, something more needs to be done in terms of educating future members of the electorate about the workings of our republic.

Along those lines, I'd be all for a return to a civics requirement in public high school, along the lines of what Benjamin Barber outlined in An Aristocracy of Everyone.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/31/2005

I think the legislation and rules are a classic case of politicians feeling the need to "look busy" when they don't really have a clue how to fix what's wrong with either education or constitutional democracy. That said, I am troubled by the relative lack of action on the part of our faculties: I recently forwarded the IHE article to our faculty listserv with the question "What are we going to do about this new requirement" and got zero response. Nothing. Not a "oh, that's interesting" or a "how dare they" flamefest, or even any "My class will be acting out a constitutional convention".... Nothing.

I'm not saying it's a good idea, but it's a requirement, and if we can't act to fulfill a requirement as simple, as fundamental, as trivial as this one, how will anyone rely on us to carry out more complex and important obligations?

Evan Garcia - 5/31/2005

Completely peripheral to this issue--I've never heard anyone bring up the issue of the date of "Constitution Day". Most of the UC system would be flagrantly ignoring the intent of Consitution Day hasn't started that early.

Except for UC Berkeley, which is on the semester system, the other UCs are on the quarter system, and classes don't generally begin until the last week of September.

David Timothy Beito - 5/31/2005

I think that is even longer than the 1864 constitution of Nevada (where I used to teach it as a course requirement). Of course, parts of it could always be assigned to good effect.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/31/2005

Of course, if one were talking about the constitution of the great state of Alabama, it would be an entirely different matter!

David Timothy Beito - 5/31/2005

Perhaps....but the teachers in Alabama (or at least their leaders) claimed that "all teachers require students to do that anyway"...thus the mandate was unnecessary. This was plainly untrue, of course, but they didn't make any claim about entry points or not having the time.

In any case, this excuse is not very persuasive. The document is quite short and the language is clear. I suspect that many have deeper reasons for not assigning it.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/31/2005

At a conference a few years ago, I heard some K-12 teachers say that for students reading a constitution was like reading a credit card agreement.

These teachers were working on changing that. However, it was clear from the techniques they were using that they had to find "entry points," issues or conflicts that were relevant to the students. Reading alone they found almost worthless, except with a few students.

Right or wrong, I suspect that part of what the teachers you mention objected to was the need to find a week in a semester crowded with required topics in order to get the constitution across.

David Timothy Beito - 5/31/2005

I agree with the general sentiment here that requiring a special day is a bad idea. I also would like to add, however, my view that the public schools, and public school teachers, have often fallen down on the job.

Many of my students who never even read the Constitution (much less the declaration) before they came to my class. When I was a member of an hoc committee to propose changes to the Course of Study, the educational establishment opposed, and strongly opposed, our proposal that at some point K-12 students be required to actually read the document. Why? They claimed that teachers "already did this anyway." When I pointed out that many of my students said otherwise, they had no response.

Caleb McDaniel - 5/31/2005

Oscar, Your digression is precisely why I was seduced by the idea in the first place. I do think democratic citizenship is best served when all citizens have a basic working knowledge of the government's operations, especially when so many of our pressing public debates are (as they always have been) about constitutional matters.

So I agree that "we" need to do something, but I would gloss that "we" as in "we, the people," in our role as a democratic community of citizens (or in our more specific role as "we, the educators"), rather than "we" as in "we, the elected representatives of the people." That distinction may be just a nice bit of sophistry, but I'd like to believe it's more substantive than that.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/31/2005

Fuyll disclosure, as a constitutional historian, I first considered the requirement as a way to butter a bit of my bread.

Your wife's concern, however, does strike my as legitimate. I suspect K-12 teachers would be under particular pressure to toe a party line or, at best, keep the range of opinion expressed fairly narrow.

Having said that, I just spent an odd semester teach a 1 hour first-year political science course in state and local government (my emphasis in state constitutions, and a bit of desperation, led the poli sci chair to approve me).

I was painfully startled at how very little most of these students new about government at all (and these were not bad students at all). In fact I had to jettison my original course structure for a more basic, "here is what your government does" approach. (I brought in a few speakers, a retired judge, a former school board member, the city administrator, and the county clerk. They made an impression: they put a human face on government, and if this course had any long-term positive impact they are why.)

End of digression. While I don't consider setting aside days as a particularly good way to get the importance of the Constitution across, and while the politicizing of such "celebrations" may be unavoidable, we do need to do something.