Americans’ civic knowledge is abysmal. A survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and released on Constitution Day 2017 found that only 26 percent of Americans could name all three branches of government and that 37 percent could not name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.
While there is plenty of blame to go around for creating this crisis, colleges and universities, as the training ground for the nation’s future leaders, have a particular need to respond. A 2016 study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that 80 percent of college seniors at top-ranked institutions would earn a grade of “D” or “F” on a test of basic civic knowledge. Only a handful of colleges, the study shows, require even a single course in American history or government.
We can and should do better in producing educated citizens, by teaching both the origins and historical development of the Constitution.
The writing of the U.S. Constitution in the late 18th century held world historical significance. In recent decades, many scholars and popular writers have understandably focused on the shortcomings and limits of the founders’ achievements. But if we situate the American founders historically — if we understand them in the context of their time — we can see more clearly what they actually accomplished.
In an age of kings and emperors, tsars and sultans, the Constitution began with the words, “We the People.” In an age of princes, dukes, nobles, and aristocrats of every sort, the Constitution prohibited “titles of nobility.” And in an age of religious conflict and persecution, the Constitution provided that there would be “no religious test” for holding office, and the Bill of Rights affirmed Americans’ right to freely exercise their religion. Because at the time no nation had ever made such claims, the words of the American framers helped usher in a modern era of democratic constitutionalism and human rights.
But lest we hold up the founders as demigods, we need to study the historical development of the Constitution, how both the text and its interpretation have expanded and evolved over time. The story of how the Constitution was remade after the Civil War, how it came to end slavery and thus include those who been excluded from the beginning — especially through the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments — has defined Americans’ understanding of liberty for the past century and a half.
The 20th-century amendments, such as those establishing women suffrage and voting rights for 18-year-olds, continued the expansion of human rights, as did a host of landmark Supreme Court rulings beginning in the 1950s.
As Justice Thurgood Marshall once put it, understanding and celebrating the life of the Constitution is in some ways more important than understanding and celebrating its birth.
What could be gained from such an inclusive approach to teaching the Constitution?
First, studying the Constitution might help us to see what we have in common as Americans. My students at Rhodes College in Memphis are a diverse lot. They come from all over the country, from the suburbs of Chicago to rural Middle Tennessee. They are white and black, conservative and liberal; they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and atheist. But as Americans, they all share the same Constitution. Unlike the Bible or Shakespeare, the Constitution claims a unique status in this country, because it is the only text that all of us — regardless of our identities — hold in common.
Second, improving civic literacy will elevate and enrich our public discussion. The Constitution, after all, is a set of rules by which we all agree to play. Knowing the rules — and knowing how American ideas and institutions based on those roles have developed over time — is the key to sustaining civic engagement, civil debate, and health of the republic. The best antidote to shout-fests on cable television, “fake news” on social media, and violent protests in the streets is a thoroughgoing knowledge of the Constitution and a deeper appreciation for the American experiment.
In 1835, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, one of the most important constitutional scholars in American history, asserted his desire to “fix in the minds of American youth a more devout enthusiasm for the constitution of their country, a more sincere love of its principles, and a more firm determination to adhere to its actual provisions against the clamors of faction.”
At a time when many worry about the fragile state of our republic, American colleges and universities should, in the spirit of Justice Story, take the lead in educating for citizenship.