A Constitutional Culture

In the wake of the horrific shooting in Tucson last month, PBS’ Mark Shields made an “only in America” observation.

“This is America, where a white Catholic male Republican judge was murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, all eulogized by our African-American President.”

There, in a nutshell, is what most of us would consider the triumph of American culture—the fact that the nation has moved, however haltingly, toward a vision that allows all of us to be members in good standing of our society, equal participants in our national story, whatever our religious belief, skin color, sexual orientation or national origin.  What makes us all Americans isn’t based upon any of those individual identities, but upon our allegiance to what I sometimes call “the American Idea”—a particular worldview based upon an understanding of government and citizenship that grew out of the Enlightenment and was subsequently enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

American culture is not threatened by immigrants who come to this country because they find that worldview attractive, but it is threatened by an appalling lack of civic literacy.

One recent survey found only 36 percent of Americans able to correctly name the three branches of government. Other research has found that fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism; that only 35.5% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution; that barely a quarter of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders are proficient in civics, with only five percent of seniors able to identify and explain checks on presidential power.  I could go on. And on.

The consequences of this ignorance are profound.

Self-government requires a civically educated citizenry. When a nation’s citizenry is very diverse, as in the United States, it is particularly important that citizens know the history and philosophy of their governing institutions; in the absence of other ties—race, religion, national origin—a common understanding of, and devotion to, constitutional principles is critical to the formation of national identity.

Devotion, however, must be based on genuine understanding of the history and context of our constituent documents if it is to enable, rather than impede, deliberative discourse. When pundits and politicians make constitutional claims, citizens need sufficient education and knowledge to critically evaluate those claims.

Right now, Americans are embroiled in one of our recurring debates about the adequacy of public education.  It’s a vital issue, but while we are addressing it, we need to recognize that deficits in civic literacy don’t just threaten democratic institutions. Such deficits have real and deleterious consequences for fields as diverse as science, religion, and public education itself.

Math and science are important, but creating informed, empowered American citizens able to recognize and resist demagoguery is even more so.