Trustees | General Education

Constitution depends on educated citizenry

THE TELEGRAPH   |  September 20, 2009 by Editorial

Every year on Sept. 17 the nation celebrates Constitution Day, which recognizes the 1787 ratification of the Constitution and honors those who by coming of age or by naturalization have become U.S. citizens.

Schools around the nation that accept federal funds are required to incorporate the Constitution into lesson plans on Sept. 17, thanks to Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who proposed the mandate in 2004 and included it as an amendment to a spending bill.

Telegraph education reporter Michael Brindley described how schools throughout the region planned to observe the day in his Sept. 17 column. He concluded with an observation by Ann Ackerman, associate professor of education at Rivier College.

“The most important thing is that the Constitution is studied and for more than one day,” she said. “A one-day mandate is just a waste.”

Ackerman expressed a concern that civics education is lacking in public schools, especially at the elementary level. That may be true, but the problem is not hardly exclusive to grades 1-6.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, in a newly released report card on higher education, revealed that universities also must do a better job of educating the next generation of leaders on our nation’s founding principles.

The organization, which includes alumni and trustees from more than 700 colleges and universities, reported that none of the top 20 national universities, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, require their students to take a broad course in American history or government.

Nationally, only 11 out of 100 leading universities ensure their students graduate having taken such a course. Anyone who’s seen Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segment, in which he poses questions about the Constitution to the random “man on the street,” knows that awareness of the Constitution in general and the First Amendment in particular is severely lacking.

While the Constitution itself makes no reference to education as a federal responsibility, the importance of education was clearly understood as essential to the fledgeling democracy.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” said Thomas Jefferson, “it expects what never was and never will be.”

There is a natural connection between the Constitution and the republic it created, and the public education system envisioned by Jefferson and successors like Noah Webster and Horace Mann.

Which is why, as much as we all hate federal mandates, the initiative by Byrd serves a legitimate national interest. Not so much because it promotes reflection on the Constitution for one day a year, but because it reminds us of the remarkable marriage of freedom and education, neither of which can exist without the other.

Jefferson would likely appreciate the extent to which our public education system has helped create the vast middle class that he knew would be necessary to sustain a truly democratic republic.

And he would also likely agree with teachers like Ackerman that a one-day observance may serve symbolic value, but a greater emphasis on civics is needed year-round.

Students who understand the principles of the Constitution will also understand that despite the overheated rhetoric of the day, government is not a dirty word, but exists to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”


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