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America, meet your republic's roots

Constitution Day will be observed for the first time Sept. 17, but some say civics lessons should come all year.

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For the Gaige family, treading in the footsteps of America's founders along the Freedom Trail, a question about the US Constitution is enough to stump young and old alike.

"How many branches of government does the US have?" A sea of blank stares, from the family's half dozen children aged 7 to 22, leaves it up to Mom or Dad to defend the family honor.

"Six," says Tom Gaige, wincing when he's told to divide that answer by two.

He soon redeems himself on another question in a reporter's constitutional quiz, and he can hold his head high in the triumph of simply guiding a large family through Boston's tangle of streets during a late-summer vacation.

But as the nation marks its first officially mandated Constitution Day this week, the Gaiges of upstate New York typify a persistent concern: Do "we the people" know enough about our own nation's guiding principles?

Principles that arose during the birthing of a nation - individual liberties, federal structure, and the balance of powers - live on even in a modern-day America far removed from the world of James Madison. They're front and center now in a dispute over repeating the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, America's effort to help Iraqis frame a viable constitution, and the contentious questioning of a nominee to the US Supreme Court.

Yet the simple fact is that Americans generally love their Constitution better than they know it.

That's why Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia pushed a new requirement into federal law this past spring: Every Sept. 17 students in federally funded schools and federal employees alike must pause to deepen their understanding of the republic's roots.

Few argue with the premise, yet this new provision is being launched with a measure of skepticism and controversy.

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