Today is Constitution Day. Some years ago this day was established to invite Americans to honor the Constitution and its role in our lives. Schools were urged to take time to expound upon the importance of this document. Schools responded in various ways, but commonly by having public readings of the Constitution by members of a government, civics, political science, or other similar class. While I am all in favor of people reading he Constitution, when I hear of such exercises, I am reminded of the several times I took part in reading the names of those who were victims of the Holocaust to a freezing, wind swept, empty pasture at UW. No one listened as I stumbled through as many mispronunciations as I could during my alloted time on the podium. I suspect few listen as young students read by turn the Constitution.
Most Americans know that the Constitution is the document which gives the guidelines for our government and our rights. For most people that is about where their knowledge of the document ends. Like the Bible the Constitution is widely misquoted, misinterpreted, generally misunderstood and often unread. That’s a shame. For unlike the Bible the Constitution is short, written in fairly simple language, was written in our native tongue and is short enough that most would not be too taxed to read it in its entirety. One printed copy I looked at was only 17 pages long including amendments and lots of white space. Short does not mean simple, of course. There have been many, many scholars who have devoted their lives to its study and interpretation. Our court system is predicated on doing just that.
Like the holy books of religions there are countless interpretations. Differences of opinion about what the words mean have existed since before the ink was dry. They still exist. Yet, most people rely on others to tell them what they mean rather than reading the texts themselves and deciding based on their own reading.
Public schools attempt to introduce students to the way our government works and the documents which give it direction. I used to tell my students that such classes were where they paid for their free education. If the purpose of free public education is to prepare students to be good citizens, then such courses should be a cornerstone and in fact are required by all schools for graduation. However, most students are bored what they consider irrelevant material often poorly presented and opt out by daydreaming, sleeping, writing notes, etc. Few have the foresight to understand the material’s importance and the diligence to study it well enough to gain an understanding. Many figure that by occupying a seat they are paying their dues.
Later, these very people are outraged when they feel their rights are being trampled on, when government does not act or react the way they think it should. Most see their rights as absolute as in the right to free speech means that they can say any thing they want any time they want. Not exactly. They want government to help them in many ways, but not to tax them to pay for the help, and certainly not to help others whom they see as freeloaders. A bit of paying attention in school would really help allay their angst.
Take the time to read the Constitution.