Sunday, September 12, 2010

Gary Palmer: What will students learn on Constitution Day?

  Thanks to a little-known provision passed by Congress late in 2004, every grade school or college that receives federal funds must have a period of time on Constitution Day (September 17th) dedicated to teaching about the U.S. Constitution. If that day falls during a weekend, schools are required to have their session on the Constitution either the Friday immediately before or the Monday immediately following Constitution Day.

  This provision was the idea of the late Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) who was concerned about the ignorance of the American public about the nation’s history and governance. And he had cause to be concerned. From school children to college students to the general adult population, numerous surveys have found an appalling lack of basic knowledge about the Constitution.

  Numerous public surveys over the last decade have confirmed that our grade schools and colleges and universities are doing a woeful job of teaching essential American history and civics. In fact, some surveys found that more people could name the Three Stooges or the three “American Idol” judges than can name the three branches of government.

  Most Americans have enough civics education to have a basic understanding that under our Constitution, our government was divided into three branches with distinct and separated functions. Congress is to pass laws and appropriate revenue. The president, acting within constitutional executive powers, executes the laws passed by Congress.  The federal courts, most notably the Supreme Court, interpret the laws, relative to the Constitution.

  Moreover, the American people have enough history education to know that the goal of our Founding Fathers was to ensure the protection of our natural rights that preexisted government. For years, school children studied the Declaration of Independence and many were required to memorize and recite the first three sentences.

  Consequently, generations of Americans grew up with a basic supposition that our government was created to protect and never to grant new rights, had well-defined and limited powers and that these powers were delegated from the people.

  How times have changed.

  Today, millions of Americans have little knowledge of the Constitution, its doctrine of separation of powers and the limits it places on the federal government. They have come to believe that the purpose of the federal government is to create new rights, new entitlements and new laws to bring about social and economic equality. The result is a near complete disdain by both political parties of the Constitution, resulting in the massive expansion of government at every level.

  These politicians and bureaucrats have largely gotten away with it because, up until recently, the American people were so disinterested or uneducated about the Constitution that they did nothing about it. Perhaps a majority of Americans believed the members of Congress, the president, and the federal judiciary would honor their oaths of office to uphold and defend the Constitution without any urging or encouragement from the people. As Thomas Woods and Kevin Gutzman point out in Who Killed the Constitution?, politicians have created a federal government that bears little resemblance to what the framers of the Constitution intended, and in fact runs directly counter to it. Consequently, it is naïve to expect the very people who have created an “unconstitutional” government to then lead the effort to reform it.

  This brings us back to the federal law requiring a period of instruction on September 17th about the Constitution. What will be taught in those sessions? It is highly unlikely that there will be a discussion about the subversion by Congress of the Constitution’s clear separation of powers. It is not likely that any grade school or college will raise questions about the authority of Congress to force Americans to buy health insurance nor is it likely that many teachers or professors will exercise their academic freedom to question if the Constitution gives the president the authority to appoint and empower almost 40 “czars.”

  As former Colorado Governor and Democrat Richard Lamm wrote in 1992, “The Constitution is a structure for citizens who are dedicated and motivated.” He added, “The Constitution, however brilliant, will not make up for people who have lost the ability to care about the future of their nation.” If we hope to restore the Constitution’s guarantee of our liberties and restore its authority to restrain the federal government to its proper limited role, we will have to educate ourselves and then hold every elected official accountable.

  With that in mind, perhaps you should ask your children what they learned from their Constitution Day program. It would be an even better idea if you read the Constitution yourself and discussed it with them.

  About the author: Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.

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