Kalish: Constitution Day

Sep 18, 2014

I’m about to walk across the Green to my classroom to discuss the Constitution with a brand new group of students. We met for the first time the other day, but it was mostly just for instructions and logistics. Today, we get down to business.

Business is pretty much the same every fall, when I teach a college writing class on the Supreme Court. But as luck would have it, this year our discussion of the Constitution is actually falling on Constitution Day - a coincidence that makes me feel almost ridiculously giddy.

And whether they’ve read the Constitution before, or whether it’s their first time, I’ve asked all the students to use fresh eyes for today’s reading. I want them to look for the parts that seem surprising. For parts that always seem to be in the news, and to think about why that might be. I want them to consider what makes for a good Constitutional amendment – what makes for a bad one – and what it is that makes something Constitutional, rather than a regular law.

Mostly, though, I want them to look for the values , to determine what the Constitution – the document and its words – reveals about our aspirations as a nation and our vision for democracy.

What I hope they’ll see is a nation that put great faith in its citizens. Our founders saw in us an enormous capacity. They believed that we should – and could – govern ourselves.

These lessons about the Constitution feel especially personal this year, because they remind me of one of my own former teachers and colleagues. Until her death this July, Cheryl Hanna taught so many of us not just about the law, but about our role as citizens, in making the ideals of the Constitution become a reality.

Cheryl was a born teacher who cared deeply about her students and believed in their ability to make a difference in the world. And she believed equally in the power of the law.

The combination of the two created something that, for me, holds the essence of what Constitution Day is all about.

Cheryl urged us to be fully engaged in our own citizenship. She argued that the law is what we make it. It reflects our values, our aspirations, our vision for what we want of our society.

Our most core Constitutional ideal is one of participatory self-government. And Cheryl worked hard to empower us to make that ideal a reality.

So, this Constitution Day and on future days, as my class and I go on to explore the writings of our Justices and some of the key cases that have shaped our rights as we know them today, I hope I am also communicating, as Cheryl did so beautifully, this fundamental optimism about our Constitutional design.

Our Constitutional democracy is what we make it, generation upon generation. And, in remembering Cheryl, I feel my own role in this ongoing creation story just a little more powerfully.