September 17 is Constitution Day, the federal "holiday" to celebrate the document that created the United States and impacts our fundamental rights in just about everything we do from speech to sex.
Now, name a book you have read about the Constitution. High school civics books don't count. Nor do books on the history of the Founding (although kudos for reading history). No, I mean a book about why the Constitution matters to you today. Dozens of fabulous books exist from Garrett Epps' recent American Epic: Reading the Constitution, to classics like Akhil Amar's America's Constitution: A Biography and The Bill of Rights: Creation or Reconstruction, or views from Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer, Antonin Scalia, or John Paul Stevens. But, most of us who aren't lawyers don't read these books.
Now name a book you read about the Constitution as (or with) a child. The task becomes even harder. Sure there are a few books that describe the Founding Fathers, or historically what happened in 1787 in Philadelphia, but books about why the Constitution is relevant to citizens (even little citizens) are uncommon.
Why do we have so few good options to educate ourselves about America's foundational text? And, what are the costs of this constitutional ignorance?
The first answer may lie in our own lack of interest. Many of us may love, swear to uphold, and even pledge to die to support the Constitution, but are simply unwilling to invest the time to read about a difficult subject. Reading such a book would involve thinking about law, complex principles, and acknowledging that maybe you should have studied a bit more in civics class. In addition, the reality of many constitutional rights is that citizens don't care about them until they are threatened. We don't care about our First Amendment right to free speech, until we are silenced. We don't care about our Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, until the police stop us. We don't care about our right to possess a gun, until there is a threat to take that gun away. We care about constitutional rights, but really only when made relevant by a threat or direct reason to care.
So, perhaps it is a testament to our successful constitutional system that we are okay with it working, even if we don't quite know how it works. Maybe like many things from iPhones to hybrid automobiles, we don't need to learn about them as long as they work as intended. But, there is a difference between consumer innovation and the Constitution. We are not expected to participate in the maintenance of high-tech toys. We are supposed to participate in self-government.
And, here is the cost of that apathy. The two requirements of political citizenship -- voting and jury service -- are being ignored. In presidential election years, voting rates barely make it over 50 percent. In certain primaries this year, voting rates were on average 15 percent. A similar spread exists in jury summons attendance. In areas as diverse as Texas to Washington D.C., 80% of summoned voters fail to show up for court. Across the country, courts have had to postpone jury trials in serious criminal cases because not enough jurors showed up.
Worse we are passing on that apathy and ignorance to our children. If you believe America is a special place, you should be able to explain why to your children. You should have the literary tools to make that special lesson easy and memorable. Our constitutional government is a model to the world, so it shouldn't be so hard to explain it to ourselves.
Constitution Day exists as a moment to celebrate the Constitution. So in honor of that celebratory spirit, as a nation let's commit to doing three things on September 17th (and in the coming year).
First, read the Constitution or a book about the Constitution. The former is free, the latter probably more enjoyable, but both will serve as a re-commitment to our founding charter.
Second, find moments where the Constitution is relevant to your life. Think of voting, not merely as supporting democracy, but the Constitution. Think of jury duty as constitution duty. Think of your acts of speaking, assembling, petitioning, and championing the free press, not as civil liberties issues but constitutional issues. Even paying your federal taxes is a constitutional act.
Third, teach your children about the Constitution. You can create that moment of relevance, when your child looks up and says: "Why is America different from other countries?" You need to know the answer -- and it is not all flag waving and patriotic music. In fact, the answer involves constitutional law and constitutional values. And, if you can't find a book to help you teach your children, create one. We need more ideas, more lessons, and more emphasis on the document and spirit that will continue to guide this nation.
On September 17, we celebrate a document that contains the ideals of a nation. On every other day we need to celebrate an education that turns those ideals into a reality.