It's not often that first-graders, CIA agents, agriculture inspectors and airport security workers from coast to coast all receive a lesson on the same topic -- and on the same day -- but that is what's in store this September.Maybe... just maybe... at the end of the day they will understand the Constitution well enough to realize that the federal government has no constitutional authority to compel anyone who is not an employee of the federal government to expend time and resources on an activity like this. Dream on, mister.
The subject is the U.S. Constitution, thanks to a new law fathered by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who is worried that so many people don't know the first thing about the country's governing document that he decided to try to make sure they do.
Tucked into a massive appropriations bill approved without fanfare late last year by Congress is the requirement that every one of the estimated 1.8 million federal employees in the executive branch receive "educational and training" materials about the charter on Constitution Day, a holiday celebrating the Sept. 17, 1787, signing that is so obscure that it, unlike Arbor Day, is left off many calendars.
That's not all: The law requires every school that receives federal funds -- including universities -- to show students a program on the Constitution, though it does not specify a particular one. The demand has proved unpopular with educators, who say that they don't like the federal government telling them what to teach and that it doesn't make the best educational sense to teach something as important as the Constitution out of context.
On top of this being an unconstitutional mandate, the law pretty much leaves it up to each institution to decide what they want to say about the Constitution on this day of observance. Raise your hand if you think that most institutions will make an effort to educate its people about how the Constitution was understood at the time of its writing.
[Brief pause as reader stops laughing]
I wonder what Sen. Byrd would think about setting aside a day to compel everyone to read selections from The Federalist Papers and the Antifederalist Papers...
Probably wouldn't think too much of it. The WaPo article says that Byrd "prides himself on being the Senate's unofficial constitutional scholar," so I expect he sees himself as the only Constitution commentator we'll ever need.
NOTE: Despite the cynicism that permeates what I wrote above, I must say that I appreciate Byrd's stated rationale for the mandate—namely, the sorry condition of civic education in the U.S. However, his solution (apart from the fact that it's unconstitutional) addresses the problem in a typical statist symbolism-over-substance way.