Time for Constitution class

There will be no fireworks tonight, no parades, speeches, carnivals or concerts celebrating today’s significance.

For most people, it’s just another TGI Friday, the last day of the workweek, with football contests unfolding on high school gridirons across the state and the country.

All told, on the Richter scale of national observances, Sept. 17 is an indiscernible tremor compared to the 8-point quake that rumbles every Fourth of July.

The contrast is, in a way, appropriate. The formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence was a wartime rallying cry that fueled the passions of the colonists in rebellion against tyranny.

But when the 39 delegates in Philadelphia quietly put their signatures on the U.S. Constitution 223 years ago today, the outside world knew little about the goings-on during the summer session of the secretive “Grand Convention,” and nothing yet of the miracle reckoned therein.

Indeed, the triumph of self-government was still two years and ratification by nine states away.

Still, to an outside observer, it must seem a little odd that we mark Independence Day with a federal holiday and uproarious fanfare, while Constitution Day passes with little more than a few proclamations here and there.

Worse yet is the low Constitution IQ that gets highlighted every September. Stories about citizens unable to identify the most rudimentary Revolution-era events and dates smack more of normalcy than news now.

A far more serious concern is the growing chasm between revisionism and reality, with fanatics of the former feeling more emboldened all the time. I read a column this week from neighboring Oklahoma headlined this way: “U.S. Constitution was meant to oppress.” It’s a little hard to fathom a responsible journalist attributing a trilogy of despotic “-isms” to the most enduring self-government charter in the history of the world, but Oklahoma Daily columnist Matt Bruenig called it racist, sexist and classist.

Or at least that’s how he characterized what he termed the “real Constitution,” the one penned in convention prior to its amending bill of rights. He had much more praise for today’s “sanitized” version, which he approvingly described as having “been stripped of its original meanings.”

Pity the person who honestly believes that the Constitution was conceived as an instrument of oppression. (Some columns are written merely to stir up controversy and sell papers; perhaps Bruenig’s falls into that category.)

Undoubtedly, by modern standards, it’s unjust to restrict the right to vote to white male property-owners. But history must be analyzed in context. In the 18th century world of monarchs, despots and barbarians, allotting sovereignty of any sort to any voters, if not all, was a radically liberating idea.

Open disrespect to the crown in Colonial America could land an offender in jail without due process or a trial. Persons who simply fell out of favor with members of the aristocracy were often imprisoned illegally.

But even the tyranny of George III or the English gentry was a vast improvement to the arbitrary beheadings and executions handed out by pharaohs, kings and emperors throughout history.

The larger contemporary question in any constitutional analysis would be how dark-skinned peoples, women and the poor were treated in other parts of the globe in 1787. Need we be reminded of rulers’ genocidal actions in the late 20th century in places like Rwanda, Cambodia and the Congo (where Pygmies were viewed as subhuman and cannibalized by both sides during its civil war )?

Imagine the barbarism in those countries two centuries earlier and it borders on intellectual atrocity to describe our Constitution at the time as “oppressive.”

Another area of mass misunderstanding is the Bill of Rights. The distinction between the declaration that articulated our natural, God-given rights and the Constitution that protects them is a fine, but essential, one.

Too many people mistakenly believe that the Constitution is the source of rights. It’s not; it’s a limitation on government’s infringement of our rights. That’s why the diction in the first 10 amendments includes prohibitive verbiage, e.g., “Congress shall make no law.”

When confronted with cluelessness about a subject, the answer is more education. Shysters, whether peddling fake medicines or fake history, will always be with us. The best antidote to their sometimes convincing grift is knowledge.

The time is right for an ongoing constitutional curriculum in public schools. We’re already late in realizing that the best chance at educating our citizens about the main philosophical tenets of our republic, self-government and free enterprise, is to use our public school system to teach them.

Arkansas, like other states, already spends billions on education. Factoring in a program to instruct students about the principles of our Constitution would cost peanuts, but pay potentially huge dividends in terms of better citizenship.

Back when it published “The American Citizen’s Handbook,” the National Education Association called it as indispensable as the Bible, dictionary and atlas.

It’s time for Constitution class to take its rightful place in school alongside reading, writing and arithmetic.


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