The Georgia Department of Education has engaged in an ambitious plan to mark Constitution Week, which runs Sept. 17-23. The idea is for every fourth-grader in the state’s public schools, more than 120,000 in all, to receive a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution, paid for by donations and not taxpayer funds.
Whoever paid for it, it’s a great idea that should have been standard procedure all along. The effort to teach the Constitution, its meaning and its impact should take a back seat to no other subject. What good is a nation of brilliant scientists and mathematicians who don’t understand how their government works? Generations of future voters must start these lessons early.
In the effort to celebrate this amazing and enduring document, we’d like to see a few other folks handed copies of it in hopes they may better comprehend it as well.
Students can start by lending the copies to their parents. The daily political clamor from chattering pundits can lead to ill-informed votes without a solid foundation of knowledge. The more we all know about what the Constitution says — and just as important, what it doesn’t say — the better prepared we are to measure politicians’ plans and performances.
It would also behoove candidates for president to read the Constitution carefully, as we suspect some have no clue what it really says. They should pay particular attention to Article II that describes the powers of the office they seek. Some may be shocked to find its scope is much more limited and not aligned with many of the promises they make on the stump.
I’ll build a wall at the border, one says, and spend billions to deport all illegal immigrants. Another wants to tap the incomes of the wealthy to fund “free” college tuition and other social needs — though “free” in the case of government programs means “someone else pays for it.”
In either case, the power to fund these proposals isn’t fully within their grasp without Congress’ approval. Remember Congress? It’s that big white building up Pennsylvania Avenue full of annoying people — most of them wealthy, by the way — that nobody likes. It’s covered in Article I. If you’re running for president rather than emperor, you’re going to have to hold your nose and work with the legislative branch, like it or not.
Yet members of Congress themselves often lack an understanding of the document that set up our government. They, too, promise more than they can possibly deliver to gain favor with their constituents.
Meanwhile, many believe the Supreme Court justices tasked with upholding the Constitution have instead violated it by stepping beyond their assigned powers of judicial review to legislate from the bench. That argument persists over the summer ruling that overturned states’ ban on same-sex marriage. Opponents cite the 10th Amendment, which leaves powers not specified in the Constitution to the states; those siding with the majority claim the state bans violated the 14th Amendment of due process and equal protection under the law.
So here we have learned legal scholars on both sides expressing divergent views of the Constitution by using its different parts to make their cases. That’s nothing new, really. Americans often will seize upon the issue of the day and apply whichever part of the Constitution fits their goals, be it the quest for religious freedom under the First Amendment or amassing assault rifles under the Second. Those same people just as easily dismiss other portions that don’t serve their needs.
From this, students can learn that the American people and their leaders remain in an ongoing tug-of-war over which should prevail: a strict interpretation of constitutional law vs. the implied intent of a “living document” applied to modern concerns.
Perhaps its authors intended such a debate. Even as they established a framework for law and liberty emulated by free societies for two centuries, they may have wondered: Will it be enough? Can a great nation emerge from a single set of guidelines, or is there more to creating self-governance than these words alone? Intended or otherwise, the resulting process has helped make us what we are today, for better or worse.
True, sorting through the Constitution is a messy process, but that is part of its genius. It is just specific enough to maintain an orderly system of checks and balances, yet leaves the door cracked for interpretation, forcing Americans to decide what kind of nation we want to be. A constitution that laid it all out for us might not allow for this give-and-take of ideas.
This exchange often leads to dissension, but ultimately to compromise and the consensus needed to govern a land so vast, diverse and divided. Without the red-faced, table-beating arguments over the Constitution, we might become a nation of compliant drones that no longer question authority.
If a neater process seems preferable, remember the absence of such dialogue throughout history has allowed tyrants and oligarchs to gain control by codifying into law the whims of their oppression.
We should all read the Constitution and work harder to understand it. Then we should argue our faces off in defense of what we believe it to mean against all who think otherwise. Through that process, we infuse it with the lifeblood that binds us together as a nation that is still creating itself. That’s a lesson to learn that will serve us all well.
To learn more, visit: