Every day is a good day to teach the Constitution

Monday, September 13, 2010

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It’s almost Constitution Day, Sept. 17. Time to celebrate when the Framers in Philadelphia signed the document they labored over that summer in 1787. But it’s also a time of reflection, for a renewed commitment to civic education.

In this age of obsession over standardized test scores and the behemoth No Child Left Behind law, more needs to be done with civic education. American Bar Association President Stephen Zack expressed it well in his president’s message in the September ABA Journal when he wrote: “Civic education courses have become electives in some schools; at others, they are not offered at all. We are producing a generation of citizens who are ill-equipped to govern themselves as participants in our democracy. We must do better.”

To this end, the ABA will “aggressively promote civic education as a national priority.” That is a good thing for the Constitution and the First Amendment. Teaching civic education should include core lessons about the First Amendment.

Let’s hope students can learn about the First Amendment in an environment that fosters respect for their First Amendment freedoms. Too often, the First Amendment ideal does not match the real, meaning that students learn about free speech in theory but face censorship when they try to exercise it.

Justice Robert Jackson warned of these dangers many years ago in his famous opinion in the flag-salute case of West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) when he wrote of school officials: “That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of government as mere platitudes.”

The freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition should not be “mere platitudes”; they should be real cornerstones of a commitment to teaching and practicing the principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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