An Occasion for Civil Debate
Monday, September 15, 2008
Schools across the country are mobilizing Wednesday to mark the 1787 signing of the charter that established the federal government. So is Constitution Day a genuine teaching moment with lasting impact, or a gimmick with no afterlife?
It's both, said Stephen Wermiel, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law, who has mixed feelings about the annual Sept. 17 event meant to shore up civic education.
"If Constitution Day becomes a substitute for people learning about the Constitution more regularly and broadly, that's an outrage. If Constitution Day adds to people's understanding and gives you a moment to contemplate the Constitution while you are otherwise learning about it, great."
His view: "I think we are seeing more of the one-shot moment."
In 2004, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a constitutional expert, decided to beef up education about the Constitution. Near the end of a 660-page appropriations bill, he inserted language that required all schools that receive federal funds -- universities included -- to provide a program on the Constitution each year on or about Sept. 17.
That civic education in U.S. schools is lacking is no secret; surveys show that most Americans know very little about the document.
About a decade ago, major universities in the Washington region agreed to collaborate on a doctorate in constitutional studies. So far, nobody has earned one. Why? There aren't enough courses in the region to put together a quality program, one scholar said.
Wermiel sees the problem every year. "When I teach first-year law students constitutional law in the spring of their first year, it is not uncommon for me to make a joke, saying, 'You all know how a bill gets passed,' " he said. "And there is kind of tittering in the room. They seem to have some vague recollection that maybe back in eighth grade they might have studied it."
The subject gets serious attention in Keith Knott's third-grade class at Nottingham Elementary School in Arlington County. His students write a class constitution on parchment, with a big quill pen and ink, and learn about rights and responsibilities. "The day gives me a chance to show the kids the importance of government," Knott said.
Other students have taken little note of Sept. 17.
"Honestly, I had never heard of Constitution Day until you brought it up," said Sarah Cox-Shrader, 18, a senior at Wilson High School in the District, who said her teachers have given her a good grounding in the document. "I think this kind of civic education is really important, but I'm not sure how much good a day like that would do."
Across the country, state education agencies are distributing lesson plans and materials to schools. Colleges and universities are planning lectures and other activities. At Harvard University, events will be focused on the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery. At George Washington University, constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe will speak about rights not written into the document.
Some constitutional scholars take a dim view of the event.
"It's certainly true that most Americans know appallingly little about how our Republic works," said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. "And many public schools fail to prepare students to be effective, engaged citizens in a democracy. But a few lessons about the Constitution will do little or nothing to renew the civic mission of public schools."
The real way to teach constitutional principles, Haynes said, is to weave them into daily life. At Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in the District, teachers integrate policy into every class.
"Constitution Day does make sense, because it is a day to honor it," said Cecilia Paz, 16, a senior. "But overall, it should be an all-year thing. The Constitution was made for the people. It involves everybody, and everybody should be aware of their rights."