Friday, June 18, 2010

The Constitution: A Living Breathing Document

This post first appeared here at History Is Elementary in June, 2006. I’m currently attending a seminar on educational law, so it seems appropriate to re-run this today.


Earlier this month we sidestepped another effort to amend our Constitution. That’s not surprising since there have been approximately 10,000 proposed amendments since 1789. Most of them never got out committee while some amendments, the Equal Rights Amendment, for example, gained great notoriety but expired while waiting on ratification.

If it’s possible to love a document then Elementaryhistoryteacher absolutely adores the United States Constitution. My American identity rests in the stability and continuity of the United States Constitution. I really get into teaching my government unit even though some of the more intricate workings of our government I’m required to cover in fourth grade are a bit too lofty for the students to grasp. However, I try. I lay seeds that I hope will sprout later.

I teach students that our Constitution was the first of its kind for a recognized nation. It is so important that it has been copied many times by other fledgling democracies. We spiral back in our content to recall events we studied earlier in the year that began a chain ending with the Constitutional Convention. We remember the Iroquois League, the Mayflower Compact, and the Fundamental Orders. I remind students the colonist were Europeans---men who had governmental roots based in monarchies---men whose ancestors were the majority yet lived at the pleasure of a few leaders or in most cases one decision maker. We remember the Declaration of Independence whose author had the audacity to give a divine monarch his comeuppance. The beauty of it, I tell students, is that our plan of government works. It worked during times of crisis like the Civil War, Watergate, and during the presidential election of 1876 when the voting results were disputed in three states.

We discuss the events during the actual Constitutional Convention including the various compromises, and we learn about the three branches of government. We discuss ratification. At this point I usually depart from my colleagues because I feel it is important to teach students how our Constitution provides for amendments, but they should understand that any effort to change one of our most previous documents should be approached soberly and gingerly.

We discuss the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights because they concern our individual rights and were necessary in order to obtain ratification of the document. Future amendments are not usually discussed at my grade level unless the time period is taught when the amendments were added. There is nothing wrong with this in my eyes but teachers are loosing a fantastic opportunity to give the amendment process the proper examination it requires. Teachers are usually required to teach citizenship responsibilities to contrast with the Bill of Rights. Lessons are presented that indicate certain rights citizens have contrasting activities citizens should engage in to keep the Republic healthy such as voting and educating ourselves regarding important issues. While we are teaching citizen responsibilities we should also focus on the appropriateness of amending the Constitution.

The originality of our government is that it gives something very precious to ‘we the people’---not entitlement programs, porkbelly special projects, or low interest student/home loans---but freedom. Citizens are given freedom of choice, freedom of action, and freedom to live as we wish as long as our freedom does not interfere with the freedom of someone else.

It should be remembered that the Constitution doesn’t hand rights over to us; our plan of government only guarantees them. The philosophy that many of our Forefathers operated under taught that citizens are born with certain rights and liberties. The Constitution simply secures these rights for the populace.

The framers of the Constitution were highly suspicious of government. They had just gotten rid of what they considered to be tyrannical control. They were all about protecting individual rights not restricting liberty. Amendments to the Constitution involving personal liberty should always grant liberty not take it away.

Whether I agree with the premise or not, a proposed Constitutional amendment should never be used to serve as a smokescreen for Congress in anticipation of midterm elections. Our nation faces major problems with illegal immigration and the war in Iraq, yet proposed amendments regarding flag burning and same-sex marriage have been discussed repeatedly. This has been a poor use of the amendment process and is a poor use of emotional issues to detour voters from the real issues at hand.

Some Americans are going to engage in behaviors that others will have a problem with . Does this mean we are going to propose amendments for what some perceive to be bad choices and bad behavior? If this is allowed I'm afraid we will be opening doors that will be very hard to close in the future.


Teacherlady said...

I too love the Constitution. I get overly excited when I get to teach it to my high school students.

I agree with you completely that a proposed Constitutional amendment should never be used to serve as a smokescreen for Congress. It is not the responsibility of government to govern the morality of the people. Bad choices for some are not necessarily bad choices for all. Constitutional amendments should not address what some perceive to be bad choices. After all, didn't we attempt that with the eighteenth amendment? And we all know what happened then!

Mr. Nauton said...

Another great post, I always enjoy (and learn from) your blog. Thank you!

iuip said...

Nice article and is inspiring

Suzanne said...

I wrote a two-part chant about the bill of rights of the Constitution. It's appropriate to 4th grade both musically and academically. Let me know if you want a copy and where to post it. I may not get back to my classroom until August, but I think you and your music teacher would like it. Let me know if you'd like it.

Duez said...

I really wish you taught at the elementary school that my son is going to attend. :)

The constitution is something I get to discuss in World History (to sophomores) and enjoy the roots our founders had in the liberalism and enlightenment principles. Isn't it amazing how it has held up all these years?

Yet I also teach my students about the Roman Empire, which lasted much longer than our Constitution has (so far). I love the question, "Will our country ever fall like the Roman Empire?" It really makes them think and I love their debate about it in class. The constitution is always used as evidence of our continued existence.