Happy 235th Birthday, U.S. Constitution!

By Marsha Michaelis

The life expectancy of a constitution (formal charter for a nation) is seventeen years, if you take the average lifespan of constitutions around the world since 1789.

“This is an unsettling estimate of life expectancy for a document whose basic functions are to express guiding national principles, establish basic rules, and limit the power of government,” wrote Tom Ginsburg, the
professor who analyzed world constitutions.

This makes the 235th birthday of the United States Constitution, coming up September 17, a real reason for celebration, wonder, and hopefully a curiosity to understand and practice the secrets of its long life. The date has been federally observed for many decades now, but in 2004 Senator Robert Byrd snuck a little provision into a 658-page omnibus spending bill requiring every “educational institution that receives federal funds” to “hold an educational program on the United States Constitution on September 17 for the students served by the educational institution.”

(For the record, I’m not a fan of legislators sneaking things into gigantic spending bills, even when the idea might be an obvious one. Senator Byrd’s requirement is at the bottom of page 536, Section 111(a)(2)(b).)

So now all public schools and any private schools that receive federal tax dollars are required by law to teach the U.S. Constitution to students. Hopefully they were already doing that, but nowadays you just can’t be too sure.

I was interested to know how the 40+ schools of Stevens County teach students about our amazing Constitution, so I called all of them to ask. Here are six responses I received:

Columbia River Christian Academy, Kettle Falls: Students work through a self-paced K-12 curriculum, called A.C.E., which includes American history. A summary of the curriculum online describes its course in the “origins and founding of the U.S. Constitution.”

Johnson Christian School, Colville: Principal Roxana Wood said the school uses Abeka’s history curriculum and high school students spend a semester studying the Constitution. She believes it’s also touched on throughout the elementary grades.

Northport High School, Northport: It was a pleasure to talk with history teacher Eric Stark, who enthusiastically described his desire for students to understand the Constitution and its principles. He expects every high school student to read it through at least once, as well as a series of other founding documents. His AP students complete an assignment in which they choose a current event and support their position on it using specific constitutional provisions. They also watch a video series called “We the People.”

Panorama Alternative High School, Colville: Onsite teacher Terri told me the school uses a curriculum called Edgenuity. Students come to class once a week, and complete the rest of their studies online. I recommend parents look into the curriculum to see how the U.S. Constitution is taught.

Quartzite Learning, Chewelah: Principal Erin Dell says students at Quartzite have different options for learning and are expected to meet the district’s graduation requirements. Some students move at their own pace through the Edgenuity online curriculum, others use the McGraw Hill textbooks for U.S. history, and some onsite classes teach civics and government at the high school level.

Valley School, Valley: I spoke with history teacher Josh Clemmer, who described how he incorporates teaching about the U.S. Constitution throughout the year. He keeps founding documents posted on a bulletin board in his classroom so he can refer to them as needed, and tries to help students understand how “everything we are [as a nation] comes through those documents. So much of who we are traces back to them—issues of who has power in our nation: the Constitution established the balance of power, the Bill of Rights protects individual power.” He gives students pocket-sized constitutions, sometimes plans unit studies to go more in-depth, discusses the terms and vocabulary with older students and simplifies the ideas for younger students.

If your children attend one of the other 30+ schools in Stevens County, I highly encourage you to contact their teachers and principal and find out just how well the abiding and timeless ideas in our Constitution are being taught. But don’t stop there – learn with your kids. None of us will ever outgrow this inspiring and durable marvel of a national charter, in which freedom and limited government are the foundational principles and the source of so much blessing to a people.

Sidebar: Here’s one of the surprising and neat things I learned in the last few years studying the Constitution a little deeper:

In Article 1, Section 2 we read that slaves were to be counted as “three fifths” of a person when determining a state’s representation. This is very dehumanizing. But what is less obvious is that it was the abolitionists, the friends of the enslaved, who fought to lower the count. The enslavers wanted every slave counted wholly to increase their own representational power in Congress. Thus, they could exploit their “property” in two ways: through forced labor and the stealing of voices and votes. And of course, the abolitionists didn’t stop there: they fought the good fight continually, in many ways, even on bloody battlefields, until finally state-sanctioned slavery was abolished for good with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.