This post is part of an ACSblog Constitution Week Symposium. The author, Jamie Raskin, is a law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, and a Lecturer at Yale Law School and a Maryland State Senator. He co-founded the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project in 1999 with Professor Steve Wermiel. A Senior Fellow at People for the American Way, Professor Raskin is the author of We the Students: Supreme Court Cases for and About America’s Students. He can be reached at Raskin@wcl.american.edu.
If we don’t expect all romantic love to take place on Valentine’s Day or all gratitude to be expressed on Thanksgiving, why do we expect all public constitutional learning to take place on Constitution Day? Surely no single day can bear the weight of this important endeavor.
Tea Party activists have shown that constitutional advocacy throughout the year will be heard. The problem with their work is that the public cannot disentangle their constitutional claims from their political agenda. The Tea Partiers’ doctrinaire teachings about the Constitution only work for people who already agree with their politics.
America needs a continuing program of non-partisan education about the nature of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The American Constitution Society keeps lawyers and law students engaged through a program called Constitution in the Classroom. Since 2006, ACS has activated its extensive national network of lawyers and law students to visit high school, middle school and elementary school students and teach them non-dogmatic and non-ideological lessons about the Constitution.
But one of ACS’ key partners in this effort -- the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project -- takes the Constitution directly into America’s high schools on a daily basis throughout the school year, teaching a full-blown course in “constitutional literacy” to young people.
Across the country, from Boston to Baton Rouge to the Bay area, hundreds of law students from 16 different law schools are sharing their passion for the Constitution with students the age of their young brothers and sisters. They wake up early and, with no pay and precious little recognition, spread out to teach thousands of high school students--not once a year, but two or three times every week--before going to classes of their own.
These unsung constitutional champions--law students at eighteen different schools, from American University to Yale--are the Marshall-Brennan Fellows. Launched at AU’s Washington College of Law (WCL) in 1999 with the widows and families of the late Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, the Project is designed not to bewail our nation’s overly-documented civic illiteracy, but to engage young people about what it actually means to be a democratic citizen. Rather than lamenting that more teens know the names of the Three Stooges or the Backstreet Boys than can name the rights contained in the First Amendment--a favorite Constitution Day pastime of pollsters and drive-by pundits, the Marshall-Brennan Fellows are doing something impressive about it.