Constitution Day on Campus—A Thing of the Past?

David Acevedo

CounterCurrent: Week of 9/19

Happy belated Constitution Day! Last Friday marked 234 years since the United States Constitution was signed, one of the most important man-made documents in all of human history and surely the most formative in American history. We Americans ought to be grateful for the rights enumerated in the Constitution, rights which many countries’ citizens simply do not enjoy. But this day should also remind us that, perhaps more than ever, these rights are under attack by ideologies largely spawned within the halls of academia. But you already know this, I’m sure.

What you may not know is that, according to federal law, all colleges and universities receiving federal funds must host an educational program on Constitution Day each year. The law was proposed by Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) as part of the omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush. The text reads as follows:

Each educational institution that receives Federal funds for a fiscal year shall hold an educational program on the United States Constitution on September 17 of such year for the students served by the educational institution.

Simple enough, right? But let’s not be naive. As we know from many other federal education laws, simply having legislation on the books doesn’t accomplish much. Many schools simply ignore it. So to commemorate this year’s Constitution Day, we ask: How many schools actually follow this law?

To answer this question, National Association of Scholars Director of Development Christopher Kendall conducted a survey of thirty colleges and universities highly ranked by U.S. News and World Report. Sadly, he found that “barely half have programs listed for 2021. Of those, only a dozen could be called ‘educational’ in any sense.” Some heavy hitters had no scheduled events whatsoever: Harvard, MIT, UPenn, Brown, and Duke, to name a few. Further, these elite institutions are trend-setters—this does not portend well for the future of civics education on our campuses.

This alarming lack of Constitution Day education (or worse, the overtly partisan events that use the day as a pretense) is only compounded by the civics miseducation currently permeating K-12 education. Some states, such as Texas, are making serious efforts to fight back, but most are content with a dry, lukewarm civics education at best, and an all-out progressive propaganda campaign at worst.

Kendall’s Constitution Day research is a sobering reminder that, when you assess the average American child’s civics education from kindergarten through college, there’s not much good to report. At this point, we must seriously ask: Does today’s college student even know what the Constitution is? If they do, can they describe it in any level of detail? Can they list even part of the Bill of Rights? Or do they think the Constitution is a monument to oppression and white supremacy? As Kendall writes,

American education once emphasized the positive elements of our nation’s heroes, places, and ideas. This emphasis has faded in recent years, being replaced by a pedagogy that teaches that American values are outdated and American institutions are problematic. What would it look like if we taught American history from a constructive perspective again, one aimed at building support for our national values, institutions, and history?

Change may look like alternative educational material that will help fill the gaps left by our K-12 schools and colleges, such as the NAS’s own Celebrating America webinar series and Hillsdale College’s 1776 Curriculum. Another way forward would require that higher education institutions actually abide by federal law and provide their students with a bare minimum education on America’s most important founding document. But maybe their noncompliance with the law is intentional. After all, it’s much easier to deprive students of rights they don’t even know they have.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Mick Haupt, Public Domain

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