In September, there will be a national citizenship day for schoolchildren in honor of the bicentennial of the Constitution. And in Maryland the state archives division has put together an elementary-school teaching unit for the bicentennial which includes a recipe for Constitutional Molasses Sugar Cookies. I expect the kids will recall the taste of the cookies long after they remember the citizenship day.
Almost everywhere there are essay contests, some of them starting in the first grade. There's also a good possibility that a leading maker of breakfast cereals will have a copy of the Constitution in each box sometime this year. It's kind of a nice idea, but how many kids do you figure will read it? Some may ingest it by mistake though.
Former chief justice Warren Burger heads the official commission on the bicentennial, and he strongly believes that school kids should be the primary target of the work of that commission. He's not going to ignore adults, but Burger realizes that if the Constitution is to remain a living document, it has to come to life in the hearts and minds of young folks. Otherwise, why should they care about it when they grow up?
That was the real message of the leaden though controversial television series "Amerika" earlier this year. If we ever lose our liberties, it won't be by foreign conquest. We'll have done that to ourselves. Or, as Abraham Lincoln put it, "All the armies of Europe and Asia . . . could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River. . . . As a nation of free men, we will live forever or die by suicide."
Nonetheless, neither Warren Burger nor any of the other well-funded architects of bicentennial learning experiences for the young have come up with much that is likely to make the school kids feel the Constitution belongs to them, is of personal value to them. Essay contests are one-shots, even if you win. Teaching units tend to make the Constitution just another subject to be tested on, like geometry or geography. And how many kids care enough about geometry or geography to get into passionate discussions with their friends about those subjects after school.
But if the Constitution is to stay in kids' minds after the bicentennial, it will have to mean enough to them so that they do get into arguments about it and learn more about it on their own so they can argue some more.
One person who knows how to get school kids deeply, personally involved in these matters is Dorothy Middleton, a librarian at East High School in Cheyenne, Wyo.
Beginning last February, she arranged a series of brown bag luncheon-seminars for students in Cheyenne's high schools. The weekly series was called "What Right Is It of Yours?"
Talking to and with the kids were people whose daily job is to deal with particular elements of the Bill of Rights. A state prosecutor talked about searches, seizures and other mine fields of the Fourth Amendment. The chief justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court gave a view of this and other constitutional controversies from his elevated perspective. At other lunches, proponents and opponents of gun control tried to recruit from the student audience. As those lunches went on, kids kept coming in ever larger numbers.
In between these visits by adults for whom the Bill of Rights is a basic part of their working days, the students would read up on cases; on alternate weeks they met for lunch to talk and argue about what they'd read and, most important, about what they'd heard from the people in the community whose daily job is keeping the Constitution alive. In the sessions where the students discussed what they'd learned, a local lawyer was present to answer their questions.
Having talked about the First Amendment at the initial brown bag lunches at the two high schools in Cheyenne, I can attest that students were anything but passive in their reaction to the court cases I told them about -- attempts at censorship around the country in public school classrooms and libraries. And after we finished the brown-bag lunches, discussions went on in classrooms throughout the day and, I'm told, for a long time after.
It's vital, this year and any year, for students to learn firsthand how the Constitution works, day by day. As Justice William Brennan has said, the way it is now with most youngsters, "the impact of the words of the Bill of Rights very often fails to get off the printed page and into real life."