‘Constitution Day’ Requirement: The First Step to a National Curriculum?

May 25, 2005

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports (account required for access) that the Department of Education issued new guidelines yesterday requiring that all educational institutions receiving federal funds provide instruction on the United States Constitution on September 17, known as the annual Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. As the Chronicle reports:

The rule puts into effect a provision that was inserted in the final federal-spending bill for 2005 by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat and the Senate’s unofficial constitutional scholar (The Chronicle, December 3, 2004). The requirement applies to colleges, as well as elementary and secondary schools, that receive aid from any federal agency. The guidelines note, however, that the Education Department does not have regulatory authority over institutions that get money only from other agencies.

Members of the educational community are concerned that this provision, ironically, may itself be unlawful. The Chronicle reports:

But many university presidents remain concerned that Senator Byrd’s provision could establish a precedent for Congress’s setting curricular requirements, said Becky Timmons, director of government relations at the American Council on Education. Federal law prohibits the Education Department from establishing a national curriculum.  “Our members find it very intrusive,” Ms. Timmons said. “They are concerned about the precedent it holds for Congress telling them what to teach.”

But supporters of the provision seem to believe that it doesn’t establish a “national curriculum,” since it leaves the pedagogical approach to fulfilling this requirement up to the discretion of each schools. The Chronicle reports:

In a written statement, Senator Byrd, a self-taught historian who has been known to distribute pocket-size copies of the Constitution to his Senate colleagues, said on Tuesday that he was pleased that the guidelines did not “impose a particular view or interpretation of the Constitution.”  “I hope that schools will develop many different, creative ways to enable students to learn about one of our country’s most important historic documents,” the eight-term senator said.

While I personally do think that students should learn about constitutional law and how it impacts their lives, I wonder whether, especially at the college level, the provision might lend itself to abuse by institutions to impose a particular view about “citizenship” and the U.S. Constitution on students and faculty especially if they end up being required to participate in the program. Readers with additional information from their respective schools about the specifics of this provision, please let us know. This might become an interesting academic freedom issue in the near future.