Policymakers | General Education

Lessons of History

Familiarity with Constitution vital to citizen-led government
THE JOURNAL GAZETTE   |  September 17, 2015 by Molly Mitchell

Nearly 10 percent of college graduates think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court.

A decade ago, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., spearheaded the designation of Sept. 17 as Constitution Day, mandating that all publicly funded educational institutions provide educational programming to improve knowledge of the Constitution.

Was Sen. Byrd’s initiative unnecessary? Do college students really need training about the Constitution?

The higher education community doesn’t think so. From the beginning, they complained that the requirement interfered with their academic freedom. Just this year they renewed that opposition, calling on Congress to eliminate the Constitution Day teaching requirement as undue interference in universities’ business.

Enter new findings about the lack of constitutional knowledge even at the college-graduate level. The newest survey commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni shows how little college graduates and the general public know about the Constitution.

According to the study conducted by GfK, nearly 10 percent of college graduates think Judith Sheindlin – Judge Judy – is on the Supreme Court; a third of college graduates can’t identify the Bill of Rights as the name given to the first 10 Constitutional amendments; and 32 percentg believe Rep. John Boehner is the current president of the U.S. Senate. Shockingly, 46 percent of college grads don’t know the U.S. election cycle – six years for senators, two years for representatives.

That survey, coupled with ACTA’s 2015-16 What Will They Learn? study (whatwilltheylearn.com), finds that Sen. Byrd’s concerns about civic illiteracy were well-founded; only 18 percent of America’s colleges and universities require students to take a course in American history or government.

Instead of ensuring students have a basic foundation, too many colleges – and, yes, public institutions funded by taxpayer dollars – allow undergrads to skip American history or government altogether or replace them with a narrow substitute. Even students who major in history can often avoid American history entirely: Amherst, Bowdoin and Bates are just a few examples.

Colleges and universities – most especially their trustees – surely have an obligation to students, citizens and taxpayers to ensure that our country’s future leaders have a basic understanding of the Constitution, their government and U.S. history.

When asked on the day he joined other Founders in signing our Constitution what kind of government it would be, Benjamin Franklin responded, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.” Ignorance of the Constitution would be a particularly poor strategy for maintaining the democratic republic our Founders gave us.


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