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June 9, 2005

Schools must teach Constitution’s history

If the federal government has its way, every Pitt student will get a history lesson on Sept. 17.

A new law requires Pitt, and other federally funded schools, to offer a history lesson on the U.S. Constitution to students on Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, Sept. 17. However, schools can decide how they will offer instruction on the historical document.

This unusual and controversial mandate was introduced by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, who slipped the provision into a federal spending bill for 2005. Historically, course requirements and curricula have been determined by educational institutions and the states, not the federal government. According to the U.S. Department of Education, compliance will be based on an honor system.

Some higher education officials are concerned that the instructional requirement for Constitution Day sets a dangerous precedent of the government telling schools what to teach: “Constitution Day represents a disturbing precedent and shows how easily the Department of Education’s statutory ban on interfering with the curriculum can be disregarded,” said Becky Timmons, senior director for government relations at the American Council on Education.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that schools are considering a variety of ways to comply with the new requirement. Some colleges might offer a campus-wide assembly while others might sponsor an Internet chat or a speaking engagement by a Supreme Court justice.

Pitt is working on Constitution Day plans, according to Provost James V. Maher. “The University welcomes this opportunity to offer scholarly reflection from our faculty on this very important text,” he said. “I am still in discussion with our deans on what sort of forum we will offer our students and the best means to learn more about the Constitution.”

Byrd emphasized the importance of educational institutions deciding for themselves how to offer instruction on the Constitution: “I am pleased that the Department of Education’s guidelines reflect my motivation for writing the legislation, namely, to allow students to learn more about our cherished Constitution. Each school can rely on the ingenuity of its educators to determine how best to present its own program on the Constitution.”

According to his press office, Byrd pressed for the provision for mandatory teaching of the Constitution because the meaning of the document could slip away from the average citizen.

“Studies have shown that many Americans are hugely ignorant about history. Yet, our Constitution is rooted in history— history that includes the theories, judgments, real life experiences and sacrifices of millions of men and women for generations which go back even a thousand years and beyond,” Byrd stated.

The new Constitution Day education requirement also applies to elementary and secondary schools that receive federal funding as well as to federal agencies and their employees.

—Mary Ann Thomas

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