FRANKLIN, Tennessee — Most all Tennessee schoolchildren know at least a little about the U.S. Constitution, but members and supporters of the 917 Society say there’s more to be done to help students understand its background and importance.
The Nashville area nonpartisan group held a benefit Tuesday evening at the Franklin Theatre to raise money for a project to put the Constitution in the hands of eighth-graders and to complete an educational documentary on the founding document narrated by Nick Clooney, a Kentucky journalist, author and former anchorman.
Clooney, father of actor George Clooney and brother of the late singer Rosemary Clooney, attended the event Tuesday with his wife, Nina, to whom he has been married since 1959. In 2004, Clooney made an unsuccessful run in Kentucky for a congressional seat as a Democrat. He is widely respected for his media work and has received an Emmy for commentary and another for historical narration.
Attendees at Tuesday’s event were treated to a video featuring Clooney, a skit and a panel discussion. In the video, Clooney said the Founding Fathers “in a brilliant fashion” were able to produce the Constitution through patience and negotiation. “It’s my dictionary of democracy and I have it with me at all times,” he said.
Students from Davidson Academy performed in the skit, which presented the “storyboard” of the educational documentary currently in production.
Clooney also participated in the panel discussion and was a warm and lively presence on the stage. The 83-year-old quipped that a little-known fact is that he’s the last living signer of the Constitution.
State Rep. Mary Littleton (R-Dickson), who was included in the panel discussion, said that she talked to her eighth-grade granddaughter earlier this week about what she knew about the Constitution. Littleton said she was proud that her granddaughter remembered the preamble from fourth grade, but was concerned when the girl said her teacher breezed through the Constitution this year.
“I think we have failed our children as far as the Constitution goes,” Littleton said.
Eye doctor Ming Wang, who also spoke on the panel, said he thinks the downplaying of the Constitution is intentional, the result of politically correct sensibilities and efforts at being inclusive.
But Wang, who came to the U.S. in 1982 to escape communist China, said the U.S. is “the greatest country” and Americans should be proud of the Constitution for making that possible and for attracting immigrants from around the world who choose to be here. The Constitution is what defines America, he said.
“To forget about that definition is to forget what makes America great,” Wang said.
State Sen. Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield), the emcee for Tuesday’s event, said the goal of the 917 Society is for every eighth-grader in Tennessee to be given a durable pocket-sized copy of the Constitution.
“This is just the place that we start,” Roberts said. “We hope it will catch on like wildfire and sweep across America.”
Natalie Patterson, a fourth-grade public school teacher in Williamson County, doesn’t need any convincing when it comes to showing enthusiasm for the Constitution.
“I am passionate about it,” Patterson told The Tennessee Star in the theatre lobby before the start of Tuesday’s event.
Patterson said that in addition to teaching the preamble, she has her students learn about the Bill of Rights. “I want my students to appreciate history and know the facts and be able to debate,” she said. Despite its failings, America has consistently tried to improve, making it a country like no other, Patterson said.
State Sen. Mark Green (R-Clarksville), who is expected to run for governor, led the pledge of allegiance once attendees gathered inside the auditorium. Republican businessman Bill Lee, who has announced his intention to run for governor, was recognized as a 917 Society sponsor but was out on the campaign trail and could not attend.
Joni Bryan, the executive director of the 917 Society, said the documentary featuring Clooney should be finished by Constitution Day on Sept. 17. The group takes its name from the date of the signing in 1787.