Recently, the Lodi Public Library sponsored a two-part seminar designed to enlighten residents about the many challenges U.S. Supreme Court justices face when they try to interpret the Constitution's often vague language. Courtney Martin and William Whaley, students at University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law, tackled the difficult task of explaining, among other questions, what exactly the Founding Fathers may have envisioned when they wrote the Constitution.
Since I had just returned from a Washington, D.C. conference that focused on the various ways that the executive, legislative and even judicial branches of the government ignore the Constitution, I was encouraged that responsible Lodians organized an event to delve into such important issues.
While in D.C., I listened to presenters describe how the Constitution has fallen from grace. As a good example, U.S. Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill., said during the heated debate about President Obama's health care legislation that, "I don't worry about the Constitution on this, to be honest."
His comment is outrageous, but unsurprising. The sad truth is that too few citizens know anything about the Constitution even though there are laws in place to make sure that students get classroom exposure to the nation's supreme law.
In 2004, as part of an appropriations bill, President George W. Bush designated every Sept. 17 Constitution Day, as part of Constitution Week, which would end Sept. 23. Bush's bill, Public Law 108-447, also mandated that each educational institution that receives federal funds for a fiscal year will offer its students a program exclusively devoted to teaching the U.S. Constitution on that special day.
Since the requirement was buried in Bush's 3,000-page bill, no one paid any attention. At best, history and civics instructors include the Constitution as part of larger lesson before quickly moving on to something else.
Not teaching the Constitution is a missed opportunity to tell the nation's story — much more fascinating than any computer-enhanced action movie or television soap opera. During the period surrounding the Constitution's adaptation and signing, Sept. 17, 1787 and March 1789, the nation was in turmoil. Eleven years after the Declaration of Independence, the United States was still not free from England's clutches. America remained at war with England over unfair tariffs and trade practices.
Until James Madison and the other Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution and thus created a democratic government, the young country's future was uncertain.
Washington advocated for a strong civics curriculum and urged that it be a primary subject since it would be taught to the "future guardians of the liberties of the country."
Years later, Abraham Lincoln in his 1838 speech, titled "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions," joined with Washington in underlining the Constitution's importance to students at all levels. Lincoln called for the Constitution to "be taught in schools, in seminaries and in colleges, let it be written in primers, in spelling books and in almanacs, let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation."
In some academic and political circles, Washington, Lincoln and the Constitution have fallen out of favor. If you wonder whether America is worse or better off by minimizing the contributions of the Founding Fathers and marginalizing the Constitution's significance, take a look at the curious happenings on Capitol Hill and decide for yourself.
Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Adult School in 2008 and moved to Pittsburgh. Contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org.