by Jeffrey Sikkenga, Ashbrook Executive Director
Originally published in the Washington Times, this op-ed has since been published in dozens of newspapers across the United States.
Because it’s not celebrated with fireworks, parades and pomp and circumstance, you might not realize that today [Sept. 17] is Constitution Day.
The United States has the oldest continuously functioning written Constitution in the world. Despite a crisis over slavery, a civil war, economic depression, and even two world wars, our Constitution has endured for more than 230 years.
But how healthy is it? The “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison, knew that it must be more than a piece of paper. Madison admitted that the Constitution wasn’t perfect, but he believed that the American people must have a “veneration” for the Constitution, “without which,” he wrote in Federalist No. 49, “perhaps [even] the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability.”
Do Americans still understand and venerate the principles of the Constitution? Unfortunately, there’s reason to doubt. And there’s also too-little effort to correct the situation.
As part of the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test in civics, given to thousands of eighth-grade students nationwide, and released this Spring, nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of all students reported “low to moderate confidence levels” in their civics-related knowledge or skills. The fact that just 24 percent of the exam-takers scored at or above the “proficient” level in civics bears this out.
Even worse, when students do study the Constitution, they often aren’t really discovering the story of what’s been called the “miracle at Philadelphia.” Instead of reading the Constitution itself and commentaries on the Constitution written at the time such as The Federalist Papers, students are spoon fed the boring or biased (or both) views of today’s textbook writers. Instead of slowing down and digging deep into the fundamental principles of equality and liberty that are the basis of the Constitution, students are forced to race through the material without really learning it. Some might memorize the “what” of the Constitution but few learn the “why.”
And when they do focus on the bigger issues of the Constitution, too many are now being told that the Constitution was simply a tool of racial or economic oppression, rather than a charter of freedom, as it has been seen by generations of America’s most thoughtful and passionate defenders, from Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Students need to be taught not that America is perfect, but that American history is the story of our ongoing struggle to live up to our country’s Founding principles of freedom. As Dr. King put it in 1963, “when the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
On this Constitution Day, we need to renew the study of the principles of our Constitution and the compelling story of how they have shaped our history as Americans. We need to bring them alive again in the hearts and minds of the American people, and especially the young.
As former Chief Justice Warren Burger stated of the Constitution: “It behooves all of us to read it, understand it, revere it and vigorously defend it.”
If we do, Constitution Day will recapture its rightful place in American life. It will be the day that we re-commit ourselves to understanding and preserving this great American experiment in self-government.