(HOST) On September 17, 1787, the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the United States Constitution. Commentator Cheryl Hanna tells us of a new way Americans will be remembering this historic event.
(HANNA) In an ironic twist, the federal government is forcing schools to celebrate the very document that forbids unwarranted government intrusion into the lives of we, the people.
Last year, Congress passed a law that requires all schools receiving federal funds, including universities, to hold an education program about the Constitution on September 17th of each year. Given that this first Constitution Day falls on a Saturday, schools have the previous week to comply.
Although the law isn’t entirely clear, those schools that fail to celebrate Constitution Day could risk losing all federal funds.
The law was introduced by Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who added the law to a massive appropriations bill without much publicity or debate. Senator Byrd, Congress’s self-appointed Constitutional scholar, believes Americans don’t know enough about the Constitution. It’s true, surveys show a majority of students actually believe the government should give its permission before allowing stories to run in the press. Scary, huh?
So I agree with Senator Byrd. American’s don’t know enough about the Constitution — because if they did they’d question whether the law itself is Constitutional.
The government is not supposed to force Americans to be patriotic, nor should it mandate that any particular political viewpoint be taught in public schools. Granted, the law doesn’t specify what kind of program schools must sponsor, so, I suppose, a school could comply by having a program questioning the Constitutionality of the law itself.
But it makes me nervous when the federal government tries to dictate what Americans should be taught.
As one of my colleagues remarked, “What’s next? Mandatory creation science day?”
Even if you aren’t worried about the slippery slope of government propaganda, this law is another unfunded government mandate that will further burden our public schools that are already struggling to meet the No Child Left Behind requirements.
Indeed, one of my more economically-minded colleagues suggested that Constitutional experts could make a lot of money offering programs to schools that have neither the time nor the talent to arrange these programs themselves. After all, it may be easy for a law school to comply, but medical schools? Besides, there’s nothing unconstitutional about profiting from short-sighted government policies.
Politicians should be careful what they wish for: If schools do a good job educating students about the Constitution, then they’ll come to realize the danger of these kinds of government mandates. Maybe then they’ll exercise their Constitutional right to vote by supporting politicians who’ll resist such feel-good policies that run counter to democratic freedoms.
Yet, how could I, someone who teaches and comments on the Constitution for her living, oppose this law? Here’s the difference: if you don’t want to learn about the Constitution, unlike the federal government, I can’t force you to listen to me.
This is Cheryl Hanna.
Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.