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…..