Last summer National Public Radio host Peter Sagal set out across the U.S. on a motorcycle with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and others to produce a film about the Constitution. He wanted to find out what everyday Americans thought about the founding document. Written with a quill pen 225 years ago, is the Constitution up to the requirements of the digital age?
First, Sagal asked many people in different walks of life what the Constitution meant to them. One common answer was “freedom.” Actually, the word freedom does not appear in the Constitution. The Constitution and its amendments describe a governmental structure—groundbreaking for its time—and a lot of rules. Together, the Constitution and the amendments forbid many things but allow almost everything else. That’s why freedom is a good answer to Sagal’s question.
Another reason for the 225-year success of the Constitution is that, like the unfinished pyramid on the back of a dollar bill, it isn’t complete, according to Akhil Reed Amar, professor of law at Yale University. The “vast creative white space after the last amendment,” he says in a video interview, leaves room for changes to reflect the times and the changing needs of society.
These are the issues explored, not only in Constitution USA and other films NEH helps to sponsor, but also in NEH-supported research fellowships, programs for college and university teachers, and on EDSITEment, NEH’s award-winning educational website for teacher, parents, and students.
EDSITEment offers dozens of lessons on the Constitution, almost all bristling with original documents. There is a unit on James Madison, “father” of the Constitution and later President. Another is about the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the period during which the Constitution was laboriously negotiated and written. A third on what the role of a president should be is a question that is still being worked out, issue by issue, today.
As we celebrate Constitution Day on September 17, nearly every student in America will have the opportunity, as directed by Congress, to study the Constitution and to learn about the magnificent, and human, story behind the creation of this remarkable document. As former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said during Peter Sagal’s investigative motorcycle journey across the nation, “This little document—it means everything to us.”
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