Byrd Requires Colleges Teach Constitution

Colleges Would Be Required to Teach the Constitution, Under Provision Tucked Into Spending Bill (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat and the Senate’s unofficial constitutional scholar, has inserted language into the final $388-billion spending bill for 2005 requiring that any educational institution that receives federal aid offer its students an instructional program on the U.S. Constitution each September 17, the anniversary of its signing.

The provision took higher-education leaders by surprise. They said they had not been consulted about it. Because the rider does not specifically exclude colleges, higher-education officials assume it applies to their institutions, as well as elementary and secondary schools, said Becky Timmons, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, an umbrella group that lobbies for colleges.

A spokesman for Senator Byrd, Tom Gavin, said the measure would apply to all public and private institutions, including colleges, that receive federal money.

Ms. Timmons said college leaders are concerned that the provision could set a precedent in which Congress feels free to issue curricular requirements. The U.S. Department of Education is expressly prohibited from establishing a national curriculum.

While I am in rare agreement with Senator Byrd that Americans are woefully uninformed about our Constitution, this provision is plainly idiotic. From a simple logistical standpoint, there are undoubtedly institutions that do not hold classes on September 13. Do they risk losing funding? And what of students whose humanities and social sciences courses fall on other days? Or who only attend school certain days of the week? Presumably, they’d continue to be Constitutional ignoramuses unless some accomodation were reached. And, as Steven Taylor notes, the vast majority of teachers are simply unqualified to teach on this subject. Indeed, even for those of us qualified to teach the subject, one day is hardly adequate to the task.

More seriously, however well intentioned, this opens a Pandora’s Box of educational micromanagement by legislation. Surely, we don’t want Congress to design our course syllabi.

(Hat tip to Chris Lawerence)

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jay says:

    I went to Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, and there the state requires the teaching of both the U.S. and Massachusetts constitutions. I don’t think I got as much out of it as I would now when my interest is greater, nor do I remember how slanted it was, but it was there. It is the slant that would concern me. What’s to stop colleges from teaching every student that the 2nd amendment means only the military is allowed to have weapons? Nothing at all, apart from, you know, the reading comprehension and embrace of logic instilled in the students by their prior educators. Oh wait.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Georgia required something similar. But that’s a different issue. If the primary funding source required that students take a certain course, I’d have much less trouble with it than getting down to the micro level of what day they’re having the instruction.

    If Congress wanted to require, for example, that all students take Calculus and basic physics and chemistry courses, under the idea that the nation needs more people qualified in the sciences, I would think it within their prerogative as a funding provider.

  3. This highlights one of the problems of socialism (which is what our education system is). He who pays the piper gets to call the tunes. Even if the Federal government pays just a small portion of the university fees, they will find a way to call some of the tunes.

  4. denise says:

    “the vast majority of teachers are simply unqualified to teach on this subject”

    Thinking elementary and high school, the words “instructional program” make me think assembly, where presumably a school could offer a qualified speaker, or a video presentation that could be made by a bar association or other qualified entity.

    I still don’t think it’s a great idea, but the unqualified educator problem can be easily overcome.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Denise: True enough, although I can scarely conceive of a forum less conducive to educating than an assembly in the gymasium.