EDITOR'S NOTE: This editorial was provided by the American Bar Association for use in conjunction with Constitution Day, which is celebrated today.

By Sandra Day O'Connor

For nearly 25 years, it was my honor as a member of our nation's highest court to focus on a very important question: What does the U.S. Constitution, a document written with ink and quill, mean in modern-day America?

I was privileged, as few Americans are, to see the genius of our nation's founders at work. With exquisite balance, the Constitution has protected our freedoms while meeting new challenges in a changing and often dangerous world.

On Sept. 15 and 18, schools and government workplaces will hold special programs to honor Constitution Day. The events commemorate the signing in Philadelphia of our nation's Supreme Law, on Sept. 17, 1787. I hope that all Americans will spend some time reflecting on the U.S. Constitution, and how fortunate we all are to live under its rule.

The founders who signed our Constitution include some of America's greatest citizens: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. They knew democracy was a fragile experiment, one that had to be nurtured and protected with each generation.

In recent years, the need to renew our civic learning has become increasingly urgent.

As test scores in the schools and polls among adults have shown, many Americans lack an adequate understanding of how our government works and are not prepared to participate as active citizens. In 1998, the last year a national civics assessment was attempted, two-thirds of 12th-graders scored "below proficient." Unfortunately, grown-ups aren't scoring much better. A poll last year by the American Bar Association showed that only 55 percent could identify the three branches of the U.S. government. Curriculum choices in the schools are one cause. Standardized testing has helped push civic learning aside. That's a trend that must be reversed. But another cause is that many Americans don't see why ideas like "separation of powers," or protecting our courts from coercion and political manipulation, matter in their daily lives.

Learning more about the Constitution is not enough to become a fully informed citizen, but there's no better place to start.

I am proud that 170 law schools will offer programs this month, many using an educational DVD produced by the Annenberg Foundation, in which I joined Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Anthony M. Kennedy in discussing our Constitution with high school students from California and Pennsylvania.

There are also many excellent Web sites on the Constitution. One, www.abaconstitution.org, contains "Conversations on the Constitution" as well as interactive knowledge tests. This year, the site lets the reader sign the Constitution with an online quill next the names of Washington and Franklin. If you visit these sites, you will see what others have long known: A lasting democracy is based on balance, and respect for one another's human dignity and rights.

When the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, a revolution in human self-government was completed. America's Constitution was unique in spelling out not just what government could do, but what it could not do. Our Founders resisted the human temptation to amass power by setting clear limits on the federal government's reach. And they divided the government's power into three distinct branches -- Congress, the federal courts, and the Executive Branch. Each branch has its own function, and each keeps the other two branches within proper limits. Congress passes laws, the president and his agents enforce them, and courts decide whether laws and executive actions conform to the Constitution. But statutes, and even Constitutions, do not protect our freedoms. People do. Only by understanding the Constitution can we value it, defend it and ultimately preserve it.

As President Reagan so eloquently warned, "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same."

Sandra Day O'Connor is former associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and honorary co-chair of the American Bar Association Commission on Civic Education and the Separation of Powers.

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