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Constitution Day Revisited

By Stephen Chiger — September 27, 2005 3 min read
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Beyond opening the door for members of Congress to insert personal agendas into the country’s curricula, the new requirement promotes the idea that a day of classes can solve a national education crisis.

Here’s a simple mathematics lesson educators could have used on this year’s inaugural Constitution Day (“Schools to Tackle a New Mandate: Teaching About U.S. Constitution,” Sept. 7, 2005):

Take the number of times that education is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution (zero).

Now add the amount of money the federal government is providing to support its new requirement that schools receiving federal funding teach a day of activities on that document (zero).

Then multiply this amount by the number of high school and college educators who will disrupt their regularly scheduled lessons to placate the whim of Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who tucked this requirement into a federal spending bill last December (a lot).

The answer totals the amount of good done by the government’s new law, which is at best misguided, and at worst, Orwellian.

As a journalism teacher, I suppose I’m expected to toe the line on this one. After all, educators like me cry foul all the time about the suppression of student rights. A recent Knight Foundation study indicates that students’ knowledge of and respect for the First Amendment falls woefully short. In the study, 73 percent of respondents said they either didn’t know how they felt about the First Amendment or took it for granted. Can you imagine what they think about the rest?

But the government’s new rule doesn’t sit easy with me because it runs counter to the very principles it seeks to endorse. Instead of championing the Constitution, it is a perfect example of how lawmakers can make an end run around it. Still worse, it promotes a fast-fix mentality that I worry will wind up hurting more students than it helps.

Whether we like it or not, our Constitution, via the 10th Amendment, leaves the general oversight of curriculum to state or local officials and administrators—not Uncle Sam. When one thinks about it, this provision makes sense, since most reasonable people will agree that one-size-fits-all solutions are untenable in our schools. Your school may need to improve its science curriculum; mine may need to work on math. Ultimately, educators need to be responsive to the populations they serve. When the federal government intervenes, it often does so regardless of local realities or needs.

But, perhaps as a chaser to the No Child Left Behind Act, Congress is using its increasing role in education to override local autonomy. Recognizing shamefully low levels of civic awareness in students, the federal government has decided, in one simple gesture, to outlaw ignorance. The intention is admirable, if not a bit backward. Instead of attempting to substantively address the problem by funding teacher-training initiatives, promoting student journalism and governance, bolstering school resources, or creating civics activities, our solution is to just force-feed kids a day of required instruction.

I wish I could simply shrug this holiday off as a harmless and well-meaning gesture. What could be so bad about teaching the Constitution for a day? Thing is, the underlying mentality here is dangerous if you’re one of those educators who already support the expansion of civics education. Beyond opening the door for members of Congress to insert personal agendas into the country’s curricula, Constitution Day promotes the idea that a day of classes can solve a national education crisis. It suggests that we can legislate our way out of serious skill deficiencies and academic inadequacy. Mandating Constitution Day is the academic equivalent of prescribing every U.S. citizen one pill of ibuprofen because there’s a flu outbreak. It grossly misdiagnoses a real problem, giving people the false sense that serious maladies can be fixed with a glass of water and a good night’s sleep.

I’m not opposed to schools’ teaching the Constitution for a day in class. I passionately agree with Senator Byrd’s view that something needs to be done to address the dearth of civics awareness in our students. But I am against the federal government tossing us a placebo cure, all the while flouting the rules of that very Constitution it seeks to honor. If we’re serious about addressing this problem, let’s find some serious solutions.

Otherwise, we’re just teaching irony.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2005 edition of Education Week as Constitution Day Revisited

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