America, meet your republic's roots

Constitution Day will be observed for the first time Sept. 17, but some say civics lessons should come all year.

For the Gaige family, treading in the footsteps of America's founders along the Freedom Trail, a question about the US Constitution is enough to stump young and old alike.

"How many branches of government does the US have?" A sea of blank stares, from the family's half dozen children aged 7 to 22, leaves it up to Mom or Dad to defend the family honor.

"Six," says Tom Gaige, wincing when he's told to divide that answer by two.

He soon redeems himself on another question in a reporter's constitutional quiz, and he can hold his head high in the triumph of simply guiding a large family through Boston's tangle of streets during a late-summer vacation.

But as the nation marks its first officially mandated Constitution Day this week, the Gaiges of upstate New York typify a persistent concern: Do "we the people" know enough about our own nation's guiding principles?

Principles that arose during the birthing of a nation - individual liberties, federal structure, and the balance of powers - live on even in a modern-day America far removed from the world of James Madison. They're front and center now in a dispute over repeating the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, America's effort to help Iraqis frame a viable constitution, and the contentious questioning of a nominee to the US Supreme Court.

Yet the simple fact is that Americans generally love their Constitution better than they know it.

That's why Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia pushed a new requirement into federal law this past spring: Every Sept. 17 students in federally funded schools and federal employees alike must pause to deepen their understanding of the republic's roots.

Few argue with the premise, yet this new provision is being launched with a measure of skepticism and controversy.

"In the abstract, it's a good idea that students know more about the Constitution," says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. "Civics has been squeezed out of the curriculum."

But he suggests that, rather than mandating a one-day focus that lacks funding and enforcement, a better approach would be to provide substantial money for states to reinstate civics as a core curriculum.

Jennifer Groskin, who teaches social studies and language arts in Cambridge, Mass., has a simpler concern.

"It is also the very first part of the school year," she says. Sept. 17 may mark the anniversary of the Constitution's signing, but it comes just as teachers and students are trying to get into the swing of set lesson plans.

Because the anniversary falls on a Saturday this year, Sept. 16 has effectively become Constitution Day, and schools are marking it in a variety of ways:

• In Springfield, Mo., some fifth-graders will write with quill pens, draft their own constitutions, and play lawmakers, enforcers, and judges.

• Near Cincinnati, teachers and students will perform a skit broadcast on the elementary school's closed-circuit TV system.

• In Massachusetts, Ms. Groskin's language-arts students will focus on the document's preamble.

• Indiana University plans a town-hall meeting on "the United States Constitution as a model for others."

Many schools and universities will essentially ignore the mandate, because they either haven't heard about it or know there's no penalty for noncompliance. And those that do follow through won't necessarily turn students instantly into civic overachievers.

But many say such efforts are much needed all the same.

Donald Watson, who walks Boston's streets in a gold vest, knee breeches, and a tri-corner hat, says existing social studies curriculums need to be reinforced by repetition and expansion.

"I don't think we retain it," says Mr. Watson, who plays the character of colonial patriot James Otis while guiding tours of the Freedom Trail. "There should be refresher courses," he says.

An understanding of the rights and responsibilities under the Constitution is in many ways the glue that holds a diverse nation together, experts say. And many see a bleak picture in voting and civic participation rates.

"There never really was a golden age" of civic engagement, says Claire Griffin of the Bill of Rights Institute, a nonprofit group in Washington. "But it's declined," she says. "It's always time to improve things."

Still, there may be hope in people like Shoshi Kamholtz, a sociology student at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She can easily name the three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial branches. And she has little trouble on the Bill of Rights.

"We had to memorize the first 10 amendments," she says. "But since [high school] I haven't learned that much about it."

Can you remember this?

Here's a memory aid from a middle-school lesson plan for Constitution Day (Sept. 17) to help students remember what each Constitution article is about.

Lazy (legislative branch)

Elephants (executive branch)

Jump (judicial branch)

Slowly (states/federalism)

And (amendment process)

Sleep (supremacy clause)

Regularly (ratification)

Source: The Bill of Rights Institute

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