Wednesday, September 21, 2005

COLUMN -- Recommit to the symbolic value of our Constitution

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:50 AM |  

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

In a moment of ironic epiphany, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., somehow reasoned that using power not authorized to Congress by the U.S. Constitution was a good way to ensure that the Constitution was taught in public schools. More irony — Byrd's proposal was tacked onto a federal spending bill loaded with pork-barrel spending well outside congressional purview. Not surprising. Byrd has had more concrete poured in his name than Tony Soprano.

Nonetheless, Byrd is on target when it comes to Americans' knowledge of their founding documents. A National Constitution Center poll found that two-thirds of adults say detailed knowledge of what is in the Constitution is "absolutely essential." Only one in six said they, personally, have that knowledge. Whether or not they intended to do anything about that was not reported.

The new federal law that requires schools receiving federal money to teach something, anything, about the U.S. Constitution around Sept. 17 — the anniversary of its signing in 1787 — apparently had some local school districts scrambling. St. Paul Public Schools notified teachers of the requirement in August. The state Education Department notified social studies teachers in July. Response to the law was, consequently, reported as lukewarm.

Celebrations of Constitution Day ranged from passing out pocket-sized versions of the Constitution to discussing current constitutional issues to the inevitable photo op of an elementary school principal in colonial garb reading a school constitution written by some students and colored by others. While these projects might have their places, perhaps Constitution Day was also a good time to reflect on a deeper, more substantive meaning of the Constitution — the one that sophisticated education tends to spurn.

Whether it be the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address or John Kennedy's inaugural speech, every document in American history has three functions. It is a literal document; it has an interpretive meaning; and it has a symbolic significance. A quick glance at the range of Constitution Day activities suggests that educators are stuck within the first and the second functions.

In education, in government, in daily life, the symbolic significance of the Constitution is virtually ignored, and yet, I suggest, it is the most important of the Constitution's functions. It is ignored because it resembles too closely a religious commitment, a surrender of sorts to the obligations imposed by universal foundational principles. It is most important, because without symbolic significance, the Constitution has the binding power of casual sex.

Our culture and traditions are an amalgamation of our immigrant heritage. That makes America different from other countries, but not unique. What makes America unique is that unlike any other nation in the world, America is a country founded on fundamental values.

There is no American bloodline, no ethnic American DNA test, no required geographic birthplace, no restriction on who might call themselves Americans save one — that a person accept the principles embedded in the U.S. Constitution. The country's highest official swears to nothing more — or less — than to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

It is the underlying foundation of values represented by the Constitution that enabled America, not without some struggle, to forge itself into a great nation. The process today of Balkanizing Americans with ethnic hyphens, political appositives and parenthetical references to class is antithetical to the symbolic significance of the Constitution as a statement of unified American values.

We, it seems, no longer view the Constitution as the common ground of our American character. It is simply another battleground, another arena in which power takes precedence over principle. The Constitution is not our wise elder ready to advise and counsel us; it is the crazy uncle we ignore — except on Constitution Day.

If the ill-conceived Constitution Day is to redeem itself, those pocket Constitutions passed out in area schools ought to be pulled from pockets more than once a year. We can ill afford another generation that believes constitutional knowledge is absolutely essential, admits that it does not have that knowledge, and then isn't motivated to do anything about it.

Tell me again about "lifelong learning."

Category: Column,