From young reader to engaged citizen

Monday, September 17, 2007

Today is Constitution Day — a time to reflect on one of history’s most amazing documents.

It was 220 years ago today — on Sept. 17, 1787 — that 39 members of the Constitutional Convention signed the charter for what was to become the greatest form of self-government ever conceived.

The document called for three separate branches of government — a president, a bicameral Congress and a court system, each with different roles and each with the power to check abuses by the other two.

As innovative as this concept was, many Americans feared that there were no provisions written into the draft to assure the protection of the free-expression rights of the citizens.

George Mason of Virginia was one of three delegates who felt this way. He would cut off his right hand, he said, before he would put it to a constitution that did not include a Bill of Rights.

Mason’s concerns spread as the 13 states considered whether to ratify the document. Rhode Island and North Carolina flatly refused. In other states — New York, Massachusetts and Virginia — opposition was strong. Still, despite this opposition, nine states had voted in favor of the draft, and, in March, declared the new Constitution ratified.

Six months later, in September, the members of the First Congress drafted a proposed Bill of Rights — 10 amendments designed to respond to the fears raised by those citizens who worried about the power of an abusive government. Two years later the states voted to add the 10 amendments to the Constitution. One of them called for freedom of the press.

As public schools across the country launch educational programs this week defining the importance of our Constitution, they should examine the vital role a free press has played in our nation’s history.

From the early and tenuous days of the American Revolution, even before there was a Constitution with a Bill of Rights, the press was providing news, information and perspective that engaged readers.

Newspapers helped shape opinion. They sparked outrage against injustice. They triggered positive action as partners in democracy.

They provided the public with crucial facts about candidates seeking to hold public office.

It is not surprising, considering the diversity of thought and ideas in a robust democracy, that newspapers have promoted and even provoked debate, dialogue and dissent. The citizen who reads news regularly participates, perhaps without realizing it, in a constant civic engagement of ideas — the very stuff of self-governance.

A new study sponsored by the Newspaper Association of America Foundation found that civic engagement — in all its forms — was higher among those citizens who grew up reading newspapers.

In particular, the study shows that students who had access to three newspaper influences — classroom use, homework assignments and teen content — were significantly more likely to volunteer their time, donate money to their communities and express opinions on issues of public interest — and were more likely to vote.

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad: In every election year since 1972, the year the voting age was lowered to 18, there has been a percentage decline in the number of young citizens who went to the polls. The most recent Pew Charitable Trust research puts the current voting rate for 18 to 24-year-old voters at 36%. Mid-term turnout is even worse — just 19%.

Those statistics suggest that the twin forces of apathy and ignorance are endangering the future of democracy.

Those who do not know or care about the political life of their country abdicate the first responsibility of citizenship — self-governance. They leave the nation vulnerable to those with narrow financial or philosophical motives, to exploit our system and shape democracy to serve their special interests.

Habits of good citizenship form early. Ideally, they instill in our youngest citizens a burning interest in making the future of their country a better place.

That, in fact, was what the Founders had in mind when they gave us a Constitution with its Bill of Rights — making the future of their country a better place by creating a government that was strong enough and just enough to inspire each succeeding generation.

This anniversary of Constitution Day should remind us that there are challenges to keep the faith of the founders. There are no quick fixes. But neither is the society without viable institutions or visible tools to begin to bring about change.

One valuable tool for both educators and journalists is the newspaper, made available in the classroom. It can engage students in an interest in the politics and government of their communities, their country and their world.

Daily exposure to news in classroom settings can help kill apathy. It can help cure ignorance about civic affairs. It can help turn young students into informed, aware, involved adults.

It can help give meaning to the Constitution and Bill of Rights we celebrate.

John Seigenthaler, a journalist for more than half a century, is the founder of the First Amendment Center.

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