Beckett: What’s Constitution Day?
Here’s a simple three-part quiz: What’s Constitution Day, when is it observed, and why isn’t it a national holiday?
The answers: Constitution Day commemorates the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787. As a matter of law, it is “observed” — casually at best, in most cases — on Sept. 17 each year.
I can’t tell you why it’s not a national holiday, except that most of our national holidays seem to focus on people. Constitution Day, by way of contrast, is not about people, but about the ideas and ideals that make America unique.
This Constitution describes the organization and operation of our national government, protects our rights as citizens and, with careful thought and great care, places limits on the power that “we the people,” through our government, may exercise upon one another.
In 2004 federal lawmakers designated Sept. 17 Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, instructing government agencies to provide their employees with educational and training materials on the Constitution and instructing all schools receiving federal funds to hold a program for students on this day.
This half-hearted approach to appreciating the founding document of our nation speaks volumes about our understanding of its importance.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, most U.S. students don’t even know the basics. In a multiple-choice question in the 2014 test, for instance, just 51 percent of 8th graders could correctly identify a purpose of government named in the Preamble of the Constitution.
The best way to teach students about the Constitution is to have them read and discuss it and what Madison and the other Founding Fathers said about it.
None of this is a mystery. Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay explained their thinking in a series of newspaper articles now known as the Federalist Papers. Others wrote as Antifederalists arguing against the Constitution. Madison also compiled a “Report of the Debates” during the Constitutional Convention. These and other such documents provide a firsthand, unfiltered account of America’s founding — and the rationale and compromises that forged our political system.
So long as U.S. schools and other public institutions treat the U.S. Constitution as a once-a-year afterthought, others will have to pick up the slack. We’re doing our part offering nationwide programs for teachers as well as our website, TeachingAmericanHistory.org, which features more than 2,000 primary source documents and writings that have helped shape America’s history.