Culture Challenge of the Week: Constitutional Ignorance
When it comes to the U.S. Constitution, there's good news and bad news. (And then some really good news!)
Good news first: As political debates have sharpened over the past few years - since the rise of the tea-party movement - more and more Americans are becoming interested in the Constitution. While academics and some limited political circles always have discussed the Constitution and its meaning, it's striking to see so many ordinary Americans having these conversations - and embracing the ideals of our Founding Fathers and the Constitution itself.
Now, the bad news: While interest in the Constitution is growing, few Americans actually know much about what it says. That has serious downsides. It means many Americans don't really understand the rights the Constitution protects or the powers it grants.
For example, in 2009, Oklahoma tested its high school students on their knowledge of civics - including basic ideas about the U.S. Constitution. They failed miserably.
Just 28 percent knew the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and just 26 percent identified the Bill of Rights correctly. More than 2 out of 3 did not know the president heads the executive branch of government, and just 1 in 10 correctly identified the length of a senator's term in office. (This is the fruit of school years spent studying social studies, diversity and world cultures to the neglect of American history and government.)
American adults - including those serving in politics - fare no better when it comes to their knowledge of the Constitution. In early 2011, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute surveyed adults and college students to assess their civic knowledge.
The institute discovered that ordinary Americans actually scored higher on their knowledge of the Constitution than the elected officials surveyed. For example, fewer than half of the politicians surveyed (46 percent) "knew that Congress, not the president, has the power to declare war." Fifty-four percent of ordinary Americans correctly placed the war power in Congress' hands.
The origin of the famous phrase that there's a "wall of separation" between church and state was misidentified more frequently by politicians than by the public: Just 15 percent of politicians knew the phrase appeared not in the Constitution, but in Thomas Jefferson's letters, while 19 percent of regular folks did.
So many citizens are unaware not only of the genius at the heart of the American form of governance, but also of its specifics. That's a dangerous place for our country to be. Citizens who do not understand their rights - or the limitations of government - can neither defend those rights nor participate meaningfully in the political process.
When the Constitutional Convention ended in 1787, someone asked Benjamin Franklin whether the young country would be a monarchy or a republic. Franklin gave the famous reply, "A republic, if you can keep it."
His words hold true today. America is a republic - but all of us must work to keep it that way. How? First, by knowing what the Constitution actually says.
How to Save Your Family: Read the Constitution!
That leads me to the really good news. I'm happy to help Hillsdale College spread the word that on Sept. 15, in honor of Constitution Day and our founders' great wisdom, the college is offering a fantastic, free and easy way for every family to become more familiar with our Constitution: a series of short but powerful webcasts called "Introduction to the Constitution."
Simply register at http://constitution.hillsdale.edu, and you're on the road to informed citizenship.
The Constitution is an amazing document! Your children need to understand this great treasure, too - so make sure they watch the Hillsdale series with you. (Once you sign up, you can watch each lecture at your leisure.)
Another great resource for kids is ConstitutionFacts.com, where you'll find games and children's activities and free copies of the Constitution. (Pay only shipping and handling.)
Family by family, let's cherish our Constitution so we may continue to enjoy the freedoms that flourish because of it.
• Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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