In 2004, Robert Byrd of West Virginia – a Senate Democrat known for carrying a copy of the Constitution in his pocket – facilitated the passing of a statute requiring every school and college that receives federal funds to teach about the Constiution each year.
Byrd tacked the statute onto a massive spending bill, and required these educational institutions to commemorate the docment on Sept. 17 – or directly before or after that day, should the date fall on a weekend or holiday. This particular date was chosen because it is the anniversary of the United States’ adoption of the Constitution in 1787.
“If the sole justification for the inclusion of the Constitution Day bill was that one person deemed it significant enough to legally enforce its teaching, where might we draw the line?” – Alexa Johanningmeier ’21
Byrd inserted the mandate into an unrelated piece of legislature, thus ensuring his Constitution Day plan would be passed, because he was frustrated with what he called “a huge ignorance on the part of many Americans about history.”
Neither Congress nor the Department of Education has established a particular curriculum or interpretation for schools to adhere to as they commemorate Constitution Day. Nonetheless, I find this nearly 15-year-old piece of legislation to be – ironically – unconstitutional.
While I do not claim to be a legal expert, it seems to me that federally-mandated recognition of the Constitution’s birthday rubs up against the 10th Amendment, which gives states the right to manage everything outside of the federal government’s wheelhouse. The Department of Education seems to recognize this, for at the time of the statute’s passing it had specifically outlined on its website that the development of curricula and things of that nature do not fall within the jurisdiction of the federal government.
Thankfully, the Department of Education seems to rely on a system of trust or honor when it comes to Constitution Day events held on campuses around the country. The mandate is outlined for institutions that make use of federal funds, but each school is permitted to recognize the anniversary in whatever manner it sees fit. St. Olaf, for example, held voter registration drives, an activity which allowed passersby to dream up a new amendment to the Constitution, and a public reading of the document itself. Neither the College nor the government required instructors to incorporate the Constitution into classes held on Sept. 17, and I’m sure that many who did not wish to partake in Constitution Day events were not even aware that they were taking place.
But, what if the government were to decide the statute should be enforced with monitoring visits or the required documentation of Constitution Day happenings? This is a nightmarish scenario that has become far too easy to imagine in the Trumpian era.
I feel that the commemoration requirement itself sets a dangerous precedent in academic legislation. If the sole justification for the inclusion of the Constitution Day bill was that one person deemed it significant enough to legally enforce its teaching, where might we draw the line? What if someone should come along one day and proclaim the importance of teaching the life and work of Thomas Jefferson on his birthday every year? Or the history of American blues music and the people who have contributed to the genre? Or a summation of the development of American agriculture?
While these are not inherently problematic lessons to administer to students in this country, the very idea that the government could mandate what schools must teach and when they must teach it is a frightening one. Should these mandated commemorations begin to build upon one another, the already prohibitive time and resources of schoolteachers and professors would continue to shrink. Also, what if, heaven forbid, the powers-that-be should require that a certain part of history be taught through a particular interpretive lens? Is it really a stretch to imagine that Donald Trump might one day encourage the teaching of the 2016 election to reflect his version of events? We’d be lucky if he only went so far as to spin the turnout of his inauguration.
I am not arguing that teaching the Constitution in schools is wrong, of course. I am simply wary of the government’s potential to enforce the recognition of any set of doctrines. The Constitution may be a rather politically neutral and safe token of American history to make mandatory in commemoration, but I simply cannot overlook the vaguely dystopian aura of a governmentally enforced celebration.
Alexa Johanningmeier ’21 (email@example.com) is from St. Louis, Mo. Her major is undecided.