We hear a lot of talk these days about the U.S. Constitution and how important it is to protecting our liberties. But surveys continue to show a disturbing trend of many Americans not understanding the Constitution and its relevance to our lives today. After all, with all the technology we have now, why should we care about a document that was written 225 years ago on parchment and with a feather quill pen?
For starters, just imagine life without the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Bill of Rights guarantees some of our most precious liberties, including freedom of religion, speech, and press, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and private property rights. The Constitution created the framework for a strong but limited national government and established the fundamental rights of all U.S. citizens.
Our Constitution is the foundation of the legal authority for our nation and federal government, and it also established the system of checks and balances with three branches of government: legislative, executive and judicial. This separation of powers was crucial to the framers of the Constitution – and still is today – to prevent an oppressive government similar to what the British enacted on colonial America.
Although written long ago, the Constitution is as relevant to our lives today as ever. For example, the Constitution is the governing document that lets us post messages on Facebook, Twitter, and watch videos on YouTube. It also allows us to have differing opinions, enjoy the freedom to express them on blogs or elsewhere and even demonstrate peacefully.
To emphasize the importance of Americans understanding the Constitution, Congress has designated Sept. 17 as Constitution Day to commemorate the signing of the document in 1787. The legislation requires educational institutions that receive federal funding to implement programs to teach students about the Constitution.
While it’s appropriate to learn about and celebrate the Constitution on this day, we also should take this time to renew our focus on civics education in our schools and society. Today’s young people soon will be voting, sitting on juries and running for political office, and they must have the civics knowledge to make informed decisions and be engaged citizens. Research has shown that individuals who receive a solid civics education are more likely to be involved in their communities through activities such as volunteering and voting.
In today’s economy, the need for math, reading, writing and science knowledge is obvious, but civics education is an essential part of a comprehensive education. It is also essential to develop informed, effective and responsible citizens. Our future depends on individuals who understand their history and government, have a sense of what it means to be an American, and know their rights and responsibilities as a citizen.
“The better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be to preserve the system of government we have,” said retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a longtime civics education advocate. “And we have to start with the education of our nation’s young people. Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do.”
Justice O’Connor is right that we have some work to do.
We are seeing increasing evidence that civics education is not a priority in America, and state and federal funding of programs designed to teach students about our heritage has been cut. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found that less than one-third of U.S. fourth, eighth, and 12th grade students are proficient in civics.
Educating the public about the rule of law is part of the State Bar of Texas’ mission. For more than 26 years, the State Bar’s Law-Related Education program has been training educators on civics education programs and curriculum. As funding for civics education continues to decline, the Bar’s programs are more important than ever. Lesson plans focused on Constitution Day can be found on www.texaslre.org.
In the past year alone, LRE has trained more than 6,800 teachers and had an impact on more than 450,000 Texas students. Another recent addition to Law-Related Education’s resources is, “Oyez, Oyez, Oh Yay! Civics Resources for Texas Students and Teachers.” The web-based resource assists students and teachers in studying the landmark court cases that students need to know for the TEKS test. The site, texasbar.com/civics, includes videos, educational games, case summaries, lesson plans and numerous links to curriculum materials and other resources. And, this is just the beginning. The State Bar continues to enhance the program and “Oyez, Oyez, Oh Yay!” will continue to be a part of public school curriculum for the next 12 years.
On this Constitution Day, let’s all re-dedicate ourselves to learning more about our heritage and encourage our children to do the same. An engaged citizenry is essential to preserving our rights and freedom, and sustaining our system of government.
Buck Files, a criminal defense lawyer from Tyler, is president of the State Bar of Texas.