Everyone knows the important holidays at this time of the year. Labor Day celebrates the labor movement, kicks off the school year and for many, the fall shopping season. Veterans Day rightly celebrates the courage of our fellow citizens who have served in the military. No one misses Halloween, or if you do, a young or sometimes older child will remind you with a knock at the door. But there is another holiday that I bet you do forget.
Thanks to the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who always carried a copy of the Constitution, Congress in 2004 mandated that all educational institutions receiving federal funding hold an educational program celebrating the United States Constitution. As a result, each Sept. 17, we commemorate the signing of one of the most remarkable political documents ever written.
Unfortunately, there is little done, even at many educational institutions, to observe the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. Retailers do not even use it to sell merchandise. There are no Constitution Day sales. Few people get the day off. There are no parades with giant floats featuring James Madison or Alexander Hamilton. No one gets commemorative candy, or even a tri-corner hat.
However, this day is more important than it appears. The U.S. Constitution is the blueprint for our society and for modern democracies everywhere. Yet, study after study shows the American people have a surprisingly poor knowledge of the Constitution. In a poll conducted by Newsweek in 2011, seven of 10 Americans did not know that the Constitution was the supreme law of the land. Large majorities could not name the length of a Senate term or the number of members of the House or even the three branches of our federal government.
It’s not just disappointing that Americans know more about the social life of the Kardashians than the political genius of the founding fathers or the odds they overcame to draft, approve and ratify a magnificent reimagining of our democratic state in a document that lives on to this day.
It is not just a sad absence of knowledge concerning American history. This ignorance is a very real threat to the heart of our democracy. Our system is designed so that the power and legitimacy of our state lies not in the anointing of kings or aristocrats, but in the will of the people.
If the people lack the basic skills of citizenship, if they do not know the rights and duties of a citizen of the United States, then the very foundation of our democracy is vulnerable. Citizens need to know the Constitution, not just to honor the great Americans who came before us, but also to exercise the sovereignty and authority that the Constitution vests within them.
The good news is that Americans are hearing the call. Groups from all over the United States are leading efforts to commemorate Constitution Day. The National Constitution Center, the Bill of Rights Institute, ConstitutionFacts.com, ConstitutionDay.com and many others have stepped in to make Constitution Day a significant part of the calendar. The Philadelphia-based Jack Miller Center for Teaching America’s Founding Principles and History (with which I am affiliated) has led efforts to support Constitution Day events and programs on college campuses throughout the nation.
At Florida Atlantic University, the Jack Miller Forum for Civic Education, New Student and Owl Family Programs, the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters and the School of Communications have worked to make FAU’s Constitution Day commemoration a three-day celebration.
Our events this year include the unveiling of the Bailyn First Amendment Monument and a panel of experts on the First Amendment in the modern media. We have faculty lectures on the Constitution and the reading of the winning student essays on the role of the Constitution today. Constitution Day at FAU is open to the university and the community.
Kevin M. Wagner is associate professor and director of graduate studies in political science at Florida Atlantic University. Go to www.fau.edu/jackmillerforum for more information on Constitution Day at FAU.