WASHINGTON – At Irene's Myomassology Institute, students train to be massage therapists who understand human touch. Now they had better get a grip on the Constitution (search) too.
For the first time, every school and college receiving federal money must teach about the Constitution on Sept. 17, the day the document was adopted in 1787. Even the massage school in Southfield, Mich., is affected because some of its students get federal financial aid.
So Susan Vert, who works in the school's admissions office, came up with a flier that explains the Constitution and encourages students to quiz each about their knowledge of it.
"This is something that people take for granted," she said. "People who go through the naturalization process end up knowing more than citizens who have lived their whole lives here, and that's terrible."
Nationwide, millions of students are under orders to study the Constitution, the document that underpins the country's democracy, its way of life and its political debate.
Because Constitution Day falls on a Saturday, schools can pick other days to celebrate. Friday emerged as the most popular choice.
The federal government typically stays out of telling schools what to teach, because that power rests with the states under the 10th Amendment to — yes — the Constitution.
Yet this topic is different thanks to Sen. Robert Byrd (search), a West Virginia Democrat who is known for being zealous about the Constitution. He inserted a provision into a huge 2004 spending bill that requires constitutional teaching, although schools are free to choose how.
The events range from the serious to the humorous.
In Ohio, Wittenberg University plans to offer free pizza for a year to the winner of a Constitution essay contest. "Patriotic penne pasta" will be served in the Wittenberg cafeteria. At Wesleyan, in Connecticut, a music professor has put the Bill of Rights to music and is set to perform.
In Tennessee next week, Vanderbilt University plans a forum on whether lawmakers have violated free speech (search) with their edict. "I'm surprised that the Congress and the president would choose to honor the Constitution by violating it," said Law School dean Edward Rubin.
But many schools are embracing the day, and civics advocates are overjoyed. Schools are scooping up free lesson plans provided by a variety of centers and agencies.
"I'm amazed at the play this is getting," said Charles Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education. "Hopefully this will pique people's curiosity and bring more attention to the Constitution, government and politics."
Most Americans cherish the Constitution but don't know the basic facts about it, studies show.
In high schools across the country, many children will see a video of an unusual day at the Supreme Court last spring — a day that Steve Gilligan's students enjoyed firsthand.
Inside the highest court in the land, justices Sandra Day O'Connor (search) and Stephen Breyer (search) welcomed 50 students from the Philadelphia area, half from Gilligan's Masterman High School. During a candid conversation about rights, federalism and the separation of powers, many students were surprised to see the justices looking at personal copies of the Constitution.
"Shouldn't they know the Constitution by now?" Gilligan recalled his students asking. "But then they found it comforting that the justices were referring to the original documents. They liked that, because it showed the justices remember where their power comes from."
On Friday at the home of the Constitution, the National Archives (search), children will listen to a discussion about free speech in the digital age. The Annenberg Public Policy Center helped put together that event and the earlier one involving the two Supreme Court justices.
"We want students to understand that the Constitution affects their lives every day of the week," said Kathyrn Kolbert, senior researcher at the center.
As examples, she pointed to two dominant issues in the news — Hurricane Katrina, with its controversy over the role of federal and state leaders, and the confirmation hearing of Chief Justice nominee John Roberts, with its questions over the separation of powers.
The law doesn't just affect schools.
Federal employees, too, are supposed to have a Constitution program on or around Sept. 17. So even the Education Department is seeking some education — it ordered 100 pocket-sized Constitution books for its employees from the Center for Civic Education, Quigley said.