More American students, it is alleged, can name the Seven Dwarfs than can enumerate the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, also known as the Bill of Rights. (Send the kids here). That accusation, unfortunately, has the ring of truth about it. But even if it is absolutely true, should we really be making a federal case out of it?

You bet, declared the Congress of the United States. And on Dec. 8, 2004, President Bush agreed, signing P.L. 108-447. The new law designates every Sept. 17 (or, if that date falls–as it does this year–on a weekend, designates a weekday immediately before or after Sept. 17) as “Constitution Day.” In case you missed it, the U.S. Constitution was signed on Sept. 17, 1787.

By law, every federal agency (excluding Congress, naturally) now must observe Constitution Day. More to the point, any school or college receiving federal funding must show students a program about the Constitution, although the law doesn’t specify what that program must be.

The inherent contradiction irritates the brain. Something deep in the American psyche wants to rebel when the government seeks to command celebrations of liberty … under penalty of law.

The U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention education, and the 10th Amendment reserves to the states or to the people those powers not specified as belonging to the federal government. Deciding curriculum would be among those reserved powers. It probably is a little late to worry about it now, but many educators–upon learning of Constitution Day–strenuously object to the federal government dictating the curriculum.

“We already cover the Constitution up, down, and around,” August Frattali, principal of Rachel Carson Middle School in Fairfax County, Va., recently told The Washington Post.

Mark Stout, social studies coordinator for the Howard County, Md., public schools, had a similar reaction when asked by the Post whether he would create a new program for Constitution Day: “We already have one of those. It’s called our curriculum.”

“Local schools cover the Constitution,” chimed in Dan Fuller, of the National School Boards Association, in an interview with the Associate Press, “and they’ve been doing it for a long time. We don’t need the federal micromanagement. Congress has been acting more like a school board.”

Right, Dan: Leave that micromanagement to a body that’s really good at it!

But if schools and colleges have been doing such a galldarn splendid job of imbuing citizens with the tenets of the Constitution, how do you account for reports like these:

  • Between October 2001 and this summer, according to a survey of librarians, law enforcement officials under the USA Patriot Act made at least 200 formal and informal inquiries to libraries for information on patrons’ reading material and other internal matters. The data perforce are a little sketchy, though, because it’s against the law for librarians to tell anybody about such inquiries. Researchers had to phrase questions obliquely, so librarian respondents wouldn’t get carted off to the hoosegow by the feds.

  • The U.S. Department of Justice reportedly is pushing internet service providers to retain records of customers’ online activities, a practice that would permit authorities to obtain records of eMail chatter, web browsing, and chat-room activity months after logs normally would be deleted–if logs ever were kept in the first place. No U.S. law currently mandates maintaining such data logs.

  • On June 22, the Department of Defense (DOD) reportedly recruited marketing firm BeNow Inc. to create a national database of high school students ages 16 to 18 and of all college students. Using a private firm supposedly lets DOD circumvent laws against collecting and holding citizen information. The move apparently works in tandem with the requirement that schools must turn student data over to military recruiters–perhaps giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “No Child Left Behind.”

In light of these developments and many more that impinge on American’s traditional liberties, maybe Constitution Day could serve some useful purpose, after all. Maybe, like Wagner’s music, the idea of celebrating our Constitution isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.

Gregg W. Downey can be reached via eMail at gdowney@eschoolnews.com