Constitution Day is Monday, Sept. 17. What do you know about this vital document?
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In an 1816 letter, the third president of the United States warned Americans they could not be ignorant of their government and still consider themselves free.
Because those in charge have the ability to take the “liberty and property of their constituents,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, it is the people who must be able to stop government overreach. But to do so they must understand how their government works, he said.
“There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information,” Jefferson wrote.
Despite these warnings, and others over more than 200 years, many Americans do not understand the constitutional system.
Few comprehend it
A September 2017 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed many Americans don’t have a good grasp of even the basic tenets of our government.
Only two-thirds of the 1,013 people surveyed could name at least one of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, according to the survey. About three-fourths, or 74 percent, could not name all three branches of government.
The results were worse than those from a similar Annenberg 2011 survey. Then, about half of those questioned knew the federal government consists of the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
The answers seem to show a lack of understanding that can have far-reaching repercussions, according to Annenberg Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson.
“Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposed that we know what they are,” Hall Jamieson said when the results were announced. “The fact that many don’t is worrisome. These results emphasize the need for high-quality civics education in the schools and for press reporting that underscores the existence of constitutional protections.”
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Constitution Day is Monday, Sept. 17. What do you know about this vital document? Take our civics quiz at promotions.doverpost.com/Civics.
Annenberg Foundation Survey
Congressional Guide to the Constitution
State law requires teaching the Constitution as well as social studies, classes that cover history, civics, economics and geography.
Exams given to 11th-graders at the end of the school year show a slow but steady uptick in proficiency. In 2013, for example, 39.43 percent of students taking the test received passing scores. That increased to 44.10 percent in 2016.
But more than half the state’s high school juniors do not understand government fully.
Because the First State’s testing is being revamped, the social studies exam was last given in 2016. Delaware had no teaching standards on social studies until 1995, and in 2017 refreshed those standards to bring them up to date. Students will be tested against new standards this school year.
Civics education in Delaware covers several areas, said Preston “Dusty” Shockley, education assistant for social studies at the Department of Education. These include government, how other governments function, political parties, the presidential system, separation of powers, checks and balances under the Constitution and how the three branches of government are supposed to work together.
“We want students to be engaged, active citizens,” Preston said, particularly because most will be eligible to vote shortly after graduation. “We want them to know the responsibilities of citizenship, what they do and what their rights and responsibilities are.”
The fact that not 50 percent of juniors appear to comprehend American government is troubling, he said.
“It’s hard to say,” Preston said. “Sometimes in high school, it’s a student motivation factor, but I don’t want to put it all on that.”
The state wants to challenge its students and places more value on comprehension and understanding broad historical trends than in rote memorization of historical facts, such as the date Washington crossed the Delaware, he said.
“If you expect kids to be able to recall specific things in the classroom and never ask them at a deeper level, you’re going to have a mismatch,” he said.
For example, instead of only knowing the Normandy invasion took place on June 6, 1944, students should be able to explain the causes, the results and even be able to learn what individual soldiers experienced, he said.
It might be unrealistic to expect every high school student to know everything about American history and government, but educators need to work toward improving understanding.
“It’s difficult to draw a statewide conclusion other than we need to continue to provide resources to help teachers in schools,” he said. “And individual schools and districts need to look at their particular data and decide what’s best for them to do based on theirs.”
Unprepared for college
Cynthia Newton, associate professor of political science at Wesley College, believes societal changes are one reason the American public isn’t as knowledgeable as in the past. A lot of people have become distrustful of officials and have developed a deep disdain for governmental institutions.
“They don’t want to learn about it and they certainly aren’t going to take their free time to do that,” she said. This lack of interest and understanding has led to the hyper-partisanship seen almost everywhere today, Newton said.
Over the years, she has had to scale back the depth of content in class and has been forced to focus on basic information students should already know.
“It’s hard to have a serious conversation about issues if the students don’t have the foundation of how these things work, how they’re intended to work, or the rationale behind any of them,” she said.
Newton would like to see additional reinforcement of civics and other social studies curriculum beginning in kindergarten and expanding each year through high school.
“I know what’s being taught through the 12th-grade level, but students are not absorbing it, not connecting with it, not retaining it. I don’t know why, but there certainly is not a lot of societal reinforcement.”
To be an effective citizen, each American should understand the Constitution, why it was written and why it is crystal clear on some subjects but vague elsewhere, Newton said.
“It’s the foundation for all the rules, laws and government structure we have in this country,” she said. “It’s intended to limit government power, to limit the role of government in people’s lives and the effect on their liberty.”
Because many people don’t understand the Constitution, they cannot fully understand how it works, what it allows and what it prohibits, Newton said.
There’s great misunderstanding about the role of the president, such as how the executive branch is supposed to share power with the other two, the meaning of free speech and the necessity of a free press,” Newton said. “The idea of a free press is significantly under attack. When I ask about the purpose of a free press, I get all sorts of weird answers. But the press is there to hold government accountable. Among other reasons, that’s crucial. The idea that they should not speak out against the president or investigate the government is deeply disturbing.”
Only 4,500 words
That the Constitution is relatively brief -- only about 4,500 words -- was a purposeful step by the Founding Fathers, said University of Delaware political science chair David Redlawsk.
“If you look at state constitutions, they’re all over the place and detailed, which can be very, very restrictive,” he said. “What makes this Constitution work is that it’s not so detailed that every generation can interpret it in ways appropriate for that period of time.”
The men who wrote and approved the document would have had no way of knowing how the United States would evolve over the centuries, he said. At the same time, the document is not so elastic to be meaningless after more than two centuries.
“There are core values we debate on how to implement, but we don’t usually debate the core values themselves, such as the rights of the people to self-government in one form or another.”
Despite the Constitution’s importance, however, Redlawsk doesn’t think there’s ever been a period in American history where a large sector of the population has truly been cognizant of its details. And that’s unfortunate, he said.
“It would not hurt people to know more,” he said. “People talk about the decline in civics education, and I think that’s true. We don’t teach as much in school about government and how it works, while at the same time government has gotten more complex as society has gotten more complex.”
But while Redlawsk said it’s not necessary for every citizen to know every detail in the Constitution, people should stay up to date with current events.
“If people can’t say who runs Congress or what party is in charge, they have a hard time translating what they don’t know into action. You can’t ‘throw the bums out’ unless you know who the bums are,” he said.
While most voters have a low opinion of Congress as a whole, they’re usually in favor of their own senators or representatives. According to the University of Virginia Center for Politics, 3 percent of incumbent House members were sent packing in 2016, while voters sent 7 percent of their veteran U.S. senators back home.
In Redlawsk’s mind, Americans need at least a basic understanding of the way government works, the separation of powers and how presidents are elected.
And the First Amendment leads to misconceptions, Redlawsk said. Noting Annenberg’s finding that people have trouble naming all of the freedoms in the First Amendment, he finds even if they know about the freedom of speech, the details escape them.
“We constantly hear about First Amendment rights being violated if a company shuts down a social media account or if someone stops you from talking. But that’s not it. It’s specifically about government interference in speech, assembly or religion,” he said.
“People throw the First Amendment around without realizing it’s a restraint on government, nothing else.”
To be an informed voter, Redlawsk encourages a sampling of daily news from many sources, even if some don’t agree with one’s own beliefs.
“Negativity is attractive to us,” he said. “It catches our attention and we’re wired to pay attention to it. Attacks and lies often are much more attractive than the plain, cold truth.”
Making it relevant
Delaware State University’s Sam Hoff also thinks high schools may not be doing a good job of prepping students for a college career when it comes to understanding American government.
Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor and Law Studies Program Director for the Department of History, Political Science, and Philosophy.
“As a political scientist, I’m sensitive to these arguments over curriculum and over inclusion in the curriculum in the K-12,” he said.
“If they reduce what is to be learned and obviously what they put on the test, that means the students will be less prepared when they get to college. I haven’t seen that yet, but over time that could occur.”
Some people simply don’t bother to retain what they’re taught about the Constitution and government. Those that do can play a greater part in how things are decided.
The key, Hoff said, is to make the material relevant. And he has a suggestion: “One thing I take issue with is that we don’t give enough time to civics and history,” he said. There’s too much emphasis on science and other hard fields instead of the arts.
Teachers today should take advantage of computer simulations and field trips as a way of experiential learning, that is, bring firsthand knowledge to their students.
“I think students properly trained and motivated can compete with anybody,” he said.
And it’s never too early to start educating people about the Constitution and the political system it supports. Everything from skits on Sesame Street to the old Schoolhouse Rock cartoons to coloring books can be useful, Hoff said.
Even the musical “Hamilton” has helped bring back an important facet of our history, the early rivalry between the Founding Fathers that helps explain the evolution of today’s two major political parties, he said.
“When you’re exposed to that sort of thing early on in a way that’s constructive and not forced, it can be a positive thing,” Hoff said.