St. Olaf to host series of Constitution Day activities

An image of the first page of the United States Constitution.
The Constitution of the United States, which can be read in full on the National Archives website.

Often missed on busy early semester calendars, Constitution Day usually passes without much thought or fanfare. But this September 17, colleges and universities around the country are using the occasion to recommit to preparing students for effective engagement in democracy through dialogue and deliberation — something that was so critical at the nation’s founding and in the centuries since.

All educational institutions that receive federal funds are required to observe Constitution Day, but in 2018 St. Olaf is seizing the opportunity to highlight and build upon the menu of dialogue activities that will be available on campus this year. Thanks to an ongoing collaborative effort by the Institute for Freedom & Community, Academic Civic Engagement (ACE), and the Dean of Students Office at St. Olaf, Oles will have more chances to practice the art of civil discourse across political disagreements, cultural differences, and other challenging yet essential concerns.

Constitution Day at St. Olaf will begin at 10:45 a.m. with small group conversations and a Know Your Values exercise facilitated by Professor of Political Science Douglas Casson’s Constitutional Law students in the Buntrock Commons Crossroads. Participants will explore how their own personal values connect with shared American ideals — such as liberty, justice, and equality — and reflect on how to better understand those with differing values. Students, faculty, and staff are all welcome to be a part of these important conversations.

“Living within a constitutional government means recognizing that our deepest disagreements take place within a framework defined by shared commitments,” Casson says. “One of the goals of the Know Your Values exercise is to help participants clarify their own views within the context of truths that we hold in common. We should not expect to agree on everything — even the founders disagreed on some very important issues. Yet it is worth reminding each other of basic principles — freedom of speech and press, separation of powers, rule of law — that make democratic self-government possible.”

At 12 p.m. all are encouraged to join President David R. Anderson ’74 in the Buntrock Commons Crossroads for a public reading of the Constitution. Drop-in readers are more than welcome, but members of the campus community may also sign up for specific passages ahead of time here.

“The common values by which we agree to live together in community are enshrined in our Constitution. It is a living document. What better way to celebrate Constitution Day than to take the time to read and ponder what it says?” — President Anderson

“The common values by which we agree to live together in community are enshrined in our Constitution,” says President Anderson. “It is a living document. What better way to celebrate Constitution Day than to take the time to read and ponder what it says?”

Meanwhile, students from the American Conversations course will be assisting with voter registration, and students from Casson’s Constitutional Law course will crowdsource and collect proposed amendments to the Constitution that they will later analyze as part of a class discussion.

This year’s Constitution Day activities were sparked in large part through Minnesota Campus Compact. Founded in 1994, Minnesota Campus Compact supports 37 colleges and universities in preparing students for lives of engaged citizenship and fulfilling the public purpose of higher education. St. Olaf is one of six institutions to receive a grant to support these activities through the Minnesota Campus Compact Dialogue Initiative.

Constitution Day is only one of several dialogue-related initiatives on campus. This fall, the Institute for Freedom & Community is partnering with the Better Angels organization and St. Olaf alumni Annika Fjelstad ’85, Lisa Larges ’85, and Bruce MacKenzie ’72 to organize workshops that will help students build skills in communicating across political divides.  The Center for Multicultural and International Engagement also continues to host a variety of different activities designed to spark meaningful conversations, including the Sustained Dialogue program.