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Editorial columns

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Focus on rights, responsibilities of Constitution

Mathias

Americans rightly celebrate the Constitution and the first three word of its stirring preamble as the foundation of our liberty, self-government and belief in the rule of law.

“We the people” claim these precious concepts as our birthright, our legacy and our future.

Yet all too often, what we think we know about the Constitution is grossly inadequate to the task of understanding both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

After all, the Constitution emerged from struggle, compromise and specific political contexts that inform its every line and theme. It didn’t spring full-blown from the minds of the Founders, nor was it entirely satisfying to the varied and competing interests that comprised the new republic. And of course it left slavery in place for generations.

Those realities are easily lost in today’s political din, which traffics in easy slogans and reductionist statements about the gnarled roots of our ongoing democratic experiment.

As we mark Monday’s observance of Constitution Day, I’m happy to say that a national civics education program with a strong Hoosier presence is helping students at all grade levels see the Constitution in a whole new light.

The program is We the People, which was launched by the nonprofit Center for Civic Education during the constitutional bicentennial in 1989. It’s sponsored here by the Indiana Bar Foundation, with financial support from the state and local bar associations, the Indiana Judges Association, various grants, and individual lawyers and firms. More than 6,000 Hoosier students participate each year, making it one of the largest programs in the country.

We the People is more than constitutional history. It frames the writing of the Constitution against the swirl of 18th century politics and philosophy. It exposes students to the economic, political and social dynamics behind important Supreme Court cases. Perhaps most importantly, We the People teaches students that they have both rights and responsibilities under the Constitution, and that to claim those rights without recognizing and accepting their responsibilities is a hollow endeavor.

Significantly, participating students learn those lessons through respectful argument and counterargument; through the application of constitutional principles to current events; and through juried competitions at district, state and national levels.

“Why is this important?” you might ask. Numerous studies (available at www.civiced.org) show that We the People alumni vote at far higher rates than their peers; they outperform university students on political knowledge; and that national finals participants outscore their peers and adults on most measures of civic knowledge.

Unfortunately, Congress recently withdrew all funding for We the People after 20 years of generous support. Others have stepped up, but the available funds no longer cover textbooks, professional development for teachers or other important incidental costs. Participating Indiana schools continue to support We the People, but tight budgets are constraining opportunities for growth.

Speaking not only as a judge, but as a longtime We the People coach and competition organizer, I firmly believe that We the People is not an educational frill. It’s essential civic education that conveys the overriding importance of the rule of law in our society.

We the People enables students to understand what’s at stake in the day-to-day application of the Constitution and to filter out the outlandish claims that commentators make about it. What they learn instead are the historical facts and concepts behind the Constitution and a healthy respect for the merits of the many sides to every contentious question about what it means today.

On Constitution Day of all days, I encourage your strong support for We the People and the values it imparts and celebrates.

Paul D. Mathias is a judge with the Indiana Court of Appeals. He wrote this for Indiana newspapers.

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