Happy Constitution Day

September 17th is Constitution Day–an appropriate time to consider how well Americans understand that important document.

Diana Owen is a widely respected professor at Georgetown University. She recently fielded a survey intended to measure public agreement with the basic ideas of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Questions were posed in “everyday” terms and did not identify their sources.

A press release from the Center for Civic Education, reporting on the research, was titled “Survey Reveals Americans Do Not Know Much About the Constitution, But Support Its Basic Ideas.”

I guess that support should comfort us, although the widespread ignorance of our most basic legal framework sure doesn’t.

Today, the Center for Civic Education, in cooperation with Professor Diana Owen of Georgetown University, released the results of a Constitution Day survey that found that only 14 percent of Americans think they know a lot about the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The survey indicated that although Americans might not be well-informed about these documents, there is widespread agreement on many of the basic ideas they contain that transcends party affiliation, political ideology and demographics. Survey items include basic ideas in the documents without identifying their sources.

Some of the survey’s key findings:

  •  Only 14 percent of Americans think they know a lot about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and 22 percent indicate that they know very little or nothing about them. Furthermore, 64 percent say they know some things about these documents. Overall, 86 percent of respondents are aware that they are not well-informed regarding the foundational documents.
  • Although 86 percent of respondents are not well-informed about these documents, the vast majority support the basic ideas and goals of American government in the Declaration of Independence. For example, a large majority (92 percent) believe it is a responsibility of government to ensure political equality and 86 percent believe it is a responsibility of government to further the right to the pursuit of happiness by providing equal educational opportunities for all students.
  • Large majorities of Americans support the establishment of justice (78 percent) and promotion of the general welfare (75 percent), which are among the six purposes of government set forth in the Preamble to the Constitution, even when party affiliation, political ideology and demographics are taken into account.
  • More than 80 percent of Americans support elements of the Constitution and its amendments that protect the rights to freedom of belief and expression; the protections of due process of law for the rights to life, liberty and property; and political equality.
  • Significant majorities of Americans think that government is doing a good job protecting such rights as freedom of belief and expression.

I suspect that much of the support for these broad principles, however heartfelt, is superficial; for example, virtually all Americans support “liberty,” but different constituencies have very different definitions of what genuine liberty looks like. (Is it the “liberty” to refuse to bake cakes for gay couples?)

A majority of respondents (78 percent) agreed that a main purpose of government should be to promote the welfare of all citizens, although only 30 percent think that government is doing a good job of that. (Unsurprisingly, Republicans (35 percent) were more inclined than Democrats (29 percent) and Independents (26 percent) to feel that the government’s promotion of the general welfare is adequate.) A majority recognized that the benefits and burdens of society–employment opportunities, educational opportunities and income and taxation– are not distributed fairly (60 percent).

Interestingly, nearly half of all respondents also recognized that Americans are not treated equally under the law today.

Charles Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education, stated, “The good news is that the social contract is largely intact as reflected by substantial agreement among the people about the central purposes government should serve despite what appears in daily media reports to be a high level of polarization and unwillingness of opposing parties to enter into civil dialogue, negotiation and compromise….

“It is encouraging to note that the survey revealed that the greater respondents’ knowledge of the Constitution, the greater the acceptance of its basic ideas. This clearly points to the need to implement effective programs in schools and universities as well as programs for adults that educate people about the principles and values embedded in our founding documents. (emphasis added)

The unanswered–perhaps unanswerable–question is: if knowledge of the Constitution diminishes further, will we lose our already questionable ability to function as a cohesive society?

Happy Constitution Day…..

15 thoughts on “Happy Constitution Day

  1. Sheila:

    “The unanswered–perhaps unanswerable–question is: if knowledge of the Constitution diminishes further, will we lose our already questionable ability to function as a cohesive society?”

    It’s answerable and the answer is yes. And it’s about to happen right now as Hillary Clinton’s lead in the polls is now, in what appears to be, an unstoppable free fall. It’s not the knowledge of the Constitution that’s at risk, it is the Constitution itself.

  2. We must continue to educate, especially the young, on the Constitution. Perhaps that education is the most important part of being a member of these United States.
    Thanks,

  3. One of the many things that America is educationally deprived about is something that Sheila does a great job teaching here; the precepts of government in general. What the choices were those that the founders chose among.

    It seems that one fortunate thing about America’s founding was that much thinking was going on around the world at that time about what government could and should be. I believe that it’s still essential in understanding ours to have it put in that context.

  4. Pete makes a point that the world was changing and the constitution was America’s acknowledgement. The world is changing in a much different way now; it seems to have a power vacuum that is being filled by terrorists and dictators.

  5. Sheila:

    “I suspect that much of the support for these broad principles, however heartfelt, is superficial; for example, virtually all Americans support “liberty,” but different constituencies have very different definitions of what genuine liberty looks like. (Is it the “liberty” to refuse to bake cakes for gay couples?)”

    It’s superficial. Democracy to the majority of Americans is nothing more than part of a myth. It’s part of being a 100% American.

  6. Marv; was it Will Rogers who said, “You can please some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Or was the word “fool”, not “please”?

    Both seem to fit at this time in this country and the Constitution can never please all of the people all of the time. I’m sure it didn’t please many at the time it was written and passed any more than it does today; nor did everyone understand it’s meaning or the need for it to be written and passed.

    Happy Constitution Day, everyone. That certainly does NOT mean everyone is ever going to be happy with it in it’s entirety.

  7. Let’s wax philosophical. The problem in having a cohesive society based upon common understandings of what the Constitution really says is, of course, in the hands of politicians whose job it is to muddy the waters and keep the castle’s inhabitants fearful and dumb so they can ride in on their white horses and save the day to the benefit of those living in the castle, but Ivahnoes and Lancelots they are not and never were. Their greatest fears among the scullery and maids in the castle? Pragmatism. Knowledge. A sense of history etc. I fear that most Americans have someone else’s understanding of what the Constitution really says, not their own, especially now with truckloads of money and the electronics spent to fashion such a me-too world by politicians where the latter have other fish to fry, to wit: plunder of our treasury.

  8. IF SCHOOL trustees do NOT have teachers for Government courses, then they have to provide those themselves because every school. ecole, in any U.N. country has copies in all the U.N. languages as spoken and pronounced locally as ” 2016″ and the only States with that one for 1787 materials are the English ones as of the first enactment Census of the government corporation workers constituted FOR 1790. An Ohio Justice volunteered to teach States’ Constitutions LAW at a Massachusetts university property site. The “one size fits all” document does not cover our actual property limits and boundaries for any plaintiffs to make two shots at winning points, not just one. Our school trustees even handed out copies of The Ohio State Constitution as little booklets, like Notaries Public get. You won’t have another Indiana Constitution reading day until 2051.

  9. On our neighborhood message board, one person was claiming that the Constitution, which “was signed in 1776,” gives every taxpayer a right to go on any government-owned property any time they want (this was in the context of using parks after dark, but if true, would also allow any Joe Blow to sit in while the President is discussing nuclear secrets with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)

    Sadly, this person seems more the rule than the exception.

  10. Anonymoose; while working as records secretary for the Metropolitan Development Commission with the City of Indianapolis, I learned the importance of fully understanding the meaning and limitations of “transparency” and the “sunshine law”. While the public has the right to knowing the outcome of such meetings you referred to; there is no need for us to know FULLY how and why such decisions are reached. There is always discussion, disagreement, seeking resources and researching laws and information and knowing the participants in decision making just as we have family/personal discussions regarding decisions we make which will effect others. And just as decisions for battle plans during war which would forewarn the enemy and criminal investigation evidence which can and often does, warn criminals. The media needs to understand and be more selective in what they release to the public rather than passing on “inside information” to get headlines. Not sure I stated correctly exactly what I mean.

    As an example; the current movement to pardon Snowden for releasing thousands of “secret” and private government and personal documents and E-mails. It appears he did this simply because he was intelligent enough to know how the computer system works (or doesn’t work) and how to override firewalls and security and dump ALL contents. Had he released specific information regarding issues which we have a right as citizens to know, I would agree. As the facts point to; he took very dangerous action, dangerous to this country, the government and all citizens as a matter of boosting his ego. He should not be seeking asylum in any foreign country; he should be in this country and seeking legal representation under this country’s justice system which he decided to make public in his attention-seeking action.

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