VERMONT--There's a new holiday on academic calendars this year. Thanks to a rider inserted in a spending bill passed last December, every school in the country that receives federal funding is now required by law to commemorate Constitution Day on September 17. The occasion marks the signing of the U.S. Constitution, which took place on that day in 1787.
Sound like a right-wing plot to compel lockstep patriotism? It's not. In fact, Constitution Day may shape up to be a dissident's dream come true.
Senator Robert Byrd, an 87-year-old liberal Democrat from West Virginia, proposed the law. Author of the 2004 tome Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency, Byrd has been one of the president's harshest critics. In 2002, he wrote an article entitled "Rush to War Ignores U.S. Constitution" (available on antiwar.com). Byrd promoted Constitution Day to encourage students to learn about the document he believes is being threatened. "One will not protect what one does not value," he said when he introduced the measure. "And one cannot value what one does not understand."
Though the U.S. Department of Education requires schools to honor the day, it offers no guidelines or funds. Schools must decide for themselves what to do. DOE spokeswoman Samara Yudof dodges the question of how rigorously the policy will be enforced. "We fully expect schools to comply and do not foresee any enforcement issues," she says.
Vermont schools plan to mark the day in different ways. Teachers instructing kids in grades K-12 might simply incorporate a lesson on the Constitution into their classes, but a few of the state's colleges and universities are being more creative.
Champlain College is hosting a weeklong Constitutional Lecture series, which is open to the public. On Monday, September 12, it screened Inherit the Wind, a 1960 film about the teaching of evolution that focuses on the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial." This Thursday, September 15, there's a lecture about the constitutional amendments that ended slavery, and on Monday, September 19, speakers will discuss the current Vermont secessionist movement.
No doubt Robert Edwards' September 15 lecture will open eyes and push buttons. The professor's talk, on Article III, Section III of the Constitution, is called "Are you guilty of treason? Are there traitors among us?" Edwards, head of Champlain's Criminal Justice Program, says he'll talk about the history of the treason section of the Constitution and lead a discussion about antiwar protestors. For example, he he'll ask whether Cindy Sheehan's actions qualify as treason.
Edwards admits that he's a little troubled by this effort to "legislate patriotism," but Burlington College President Jane Sanders sees the day as "an opportunity," he says. Her school is sponsoring a public forum on Constitutional issues September 17, 9 a.m. -- 1 p.m. Faculty and staff will be registering voters and passing out pocket copies of the Constitution. The event will feature her husband, Congressman Bernie Sanders, and UVM librarian Trina Magi, who will speak about the constitutionality of the USA PATRIOT Act. Attorney Sandy Baird will discuss the separation of church and state. And attorney Jeffrey Quittner will explore takings law and the concept of eminent domain -- issues that will be especially relevant in the debate over two new Supreme Court justices.
Organizers at Castleton State College are also getting into the spirit. According to Communications Director Ennis Duling, they plan to kick off their celebration by hosting a public reading of the Bill of Rights in front of the library at noon this Friday. They'll also be handing out pocket Constitutions and the college's cable TV station will show the film Unconstitutional, about the rollback of civil liberties since 9/11.
Additionally, the school will display questions from the citizenship exam in the snack bar and dining hall. Faculty members will participate in guerrilla theater during lunch on Friday. Duling says some of them will be publicly "arrested" for teaching evolution, or for directing controversial plays.
In southern Vermont, Marlboro College won't have as many events, but its nearly 350 students will celebrate in a similar vein. Public Affairs Officer Elena Sharnoff says the students, faculty and staff, who gather every three weeks to discuss and vote on how the school should be governed, will hold a special forum for Constitution Day. The topic? The Constitutionality of imposing Constitution Day.
The edgy, challenging tone of Constitution Day events at some colleges will be magnified by their library's participation in "The September Project." Four Vermont libraries -- at Castleton State, Landmark College, Green Mountain College and the University of Vermont -- are mounting displays in conjunction with this worldwide grassroots movement to promote freedom, democracy and citizenship on or around September 11.
At UVM, librarian Selene Colburn is putting together a display at Bailey-Howe about free speech and the importance of an engaged citizenry. She's promoting a related September 14 lecture by Laurie Lane-Zucker of the Triad Institute, called "The Post 9/11 Crisis of Citizenship." In a press release, Colburn writes that Lane-Zucker will address, "free speech, dissent . . . the rise to dominance of fundamentalism in American politics, and widespread ecological deterioration."
Colburn says it's coincidental that Constitution Day and the September Project, now in its second year, occur simultaneously. But she calls this "a happy accident." She points out that the timing of the two events could renew students' interest in freedom of speech and dissent, which would, after all, be in the spirit of the new school holiday. "That's what's great about the Constitution," she says.