On a warm September day in Philadelphia, 39 men dressed in funny clothes put their name on a 4,200-word document that would form the backbone of this nation.
Now 230 years later, it turns out many of us don’t know much about the Constitution.
According to the annual Constitution Day survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, 37 percent of the Americans surveyed couldn’t name a single freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment. Only a quarter could name all three branches of government, and more than half incorrectly believed immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally don’t have any rights under the Constitution.
Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed also support the idea of Congress stopping the media from reporting on any issue of national security without government approval, despite the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of press.
Civic illiteracy is not a new phenomenon, though.
“This is nothing new, but it’s worse,” said Kimi King, a political science professor who teaches constitutional law at the University of North Texas. “Civic literacy has been declining since the 1960s.”
King attributes that to a reduction of civics courses taught in school.
Currently, Texas public high school students are required to take one semester of government in order to graduate. But some lawmakers proposed additional courses or tests during this past state legislative session.
House Bill 1776 would get rid of the end-of-course U.S. history exam and instead require high school students to pass the same citizenship test given to immigrants. Senate Bill 174 would add an additional civics course that would focus specifically on founding documents such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
“We’ve noticed that many government courses are a mile long and an inch deep,” education policy analyst Bibi Katsev said in January, when SB 174 was introduced. Katsev works for state Sen. Donna Campbell, who authored the bill.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of people who call our office asking if we can do something involving the president,” Katsev said.
Both bills, however, died during the session.
King argues that an introduction to civics earlier in life would help cultivate more informed citizens.
“We need to reintroduce civics in elementary schools,” King said. “We need to catch them in formative years and build upon that. It’s got to be a deeper understanding. We have to ask, ‘What did the courts decide?’ but also ‘Why did they do that?’”
Civic illiteracy also has the potential for harm, King said.
“Greater levels of education lead to a greater chance of becoming a democracy,” she said. “The more likely you are to become a democracy, the less likely you are to go to war because democracies don’t fight each other.”
“If we want to stop wars, we educate.”
The Constitution, much like the American people, is not perfect. Otherwise, we would always have unanimous Supreme Court decisions and no amendment process.
But that’s the beauty of the document, King said.
“I think the brilliance of our founders was in recognizing and laying out the structure of government and leaving the future courts and processes to color in the details,” she said.
Perhaps it was James Madison, a framer of the Constitution and a staunch supporter of the document, who laid out the best case for civic literacy.
“A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.”
CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.
In the Know
Check your own constitutional knowledge and take a quiz given to 11th-graders at Kemp High School by Rhonda Jones. Jones has been teaching U.S. history for 18 years and she also happens to be the mother of staff writer Caitlyn Jones.
1. The number of men who signed the Constitution was:
- a. 39
- b. 13
- c. 48
- d. 12
2. Which is not a branch of the federal government?
- a. Legislative
- b. Judicial
- c. Constitutional
- d. Executive
3. Laws for the United States are made by:
- a. The president
- b. Congress
- c. The Senate
- d. The Supreme Court
4. How many amendments are in the Constitution today?
- a. 10
- b. 21
- c. 27
- d. 12
5. Which is not a freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment?
- a. Freedom of speech
- b. Freedom to peacefully assemble
- c. Freedom to bear arms
- d. Freedom of the press
6. Questions about interpreting the Constitution are finally settled by:
- a. The Supreme Court
- b. The U.S. District Courts
- c. The president
- d. The Circuit Courts of Appeal
7. The president may make a treaty provided he gets agreement from:
- a. A majority of Congress
- b. Two-thirds of the senators present
- c. Two-thirds of the House
- d. A majority of the Senate
8. No person's house or property may be searched without:
- a. A bill of attainder
- b. A government investigation
- c. A search warrant
- d. Evidence of treason
9. An impeached man is found guilty by a vote of:
- a. The entire Congress
- b. The majority of the Senate
- c. The entire Senate
- d. Two-thirds of the senators present
10. Which amendment granted the equal protection of the law, often known as the Equal Protection Clause, to any person within the jurisdiction of the United States?
- a. 15th
- b. 19th
- c. 13th
- d. 14th
Key: 1) a; 2) c; 3) b; 4) c; 5) c; 6) a; 7) b; 8) c; 9) d; 10) d