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You Must Know the Constitution to be a Real American By West Virginia Superintendent Steve Paine and West Virginia Secretary of the Arts and Education Kay Goodwin

September 15, 2008

In a few months, we will hear a new president swear to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.” This oath was specified in the Constitution itself. How many of us have really listened to those words and wondered why the president swears to protect and defend a piece of paper, our Constitution, not our country?

Our founding fathers suffered under the rule of kings. They had the revolutionary idea to put their faith in the people instead of a monarch. They wrote their commitments and rules for living together into the Constitution and signed their names to it on Sept. 17, 1787. Who could have known that this brief document, which was hammered out by a committee of just five men, would change world history and become a blueprint for democracy across the globe? 

Even with such strong origins, the level of knowledge Americans have of our Constitution is shockingly low. Many admit they have never read the Constitution. That is one reason the state Legislature created the West Virginia Civics Literacy Council. The Council, a coalition of organizations, groups and agencies, is working to strengthen civic knowledge, citizenship and the civic participation of West Virginia’s youth and young adults. To defend and preserve the Constitution, we must understand it and carry out our responsibilities as citizens.

Sept. 17 is the 221st anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. It is a day for all West Virginians, whether citizens by birth or by naturalization, to pause to reflect on the document that is responsible for our success as a free people. Join the West Virginia Civics Literacy Council on Wednesday, Sept. 17, and read the Constitution. Read it at home with your family and friends. Read it aloud at your place of work. Read it as part of agenda at public meetings, organizational board meetings, programs and events. Conduct ceremonies and programs that celebrate the freedoms and the independence guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

By celebrating the Constitution, we honor the visionary leadership of our ancestors and, in this spirit of patriotism, rededicate ourselves to the great ideals that motivated our nation's founders. How can one be a functioning citizen of the United States without reading, comprehending and absorbing into daily life the ideals and values set forth in the Constitution of the United States? There is no other comparable measurement of what it means to be an American. 

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