ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Reflecting on Constitution Day 2014

September 17, 2014 by Alex McHugh

If you’re like us, you were very excited for Constitution Day today. Maybe you even got out your tri-cornered party hat and a fresh set of nibs. As we recalled this important moment in our history today, many found themselves inundated with Constitution-themed events. From parties, speeches, and roundtables to quizzes and contests, Americans know how to celebrate our nation’s founding in style.  

Unfortunately, there is one place you were less likely to find Constitution-mania: college classrooms. As we reflect on the coming and going of yet another Constitution Day, we must consider the facts for which there is less reason to party. Many colleges and universities don’t require students to study U.S. history or government. ACTA’s What Will They Learn?™ project provides a picture of just how many are failing to turn undergraduates into informed citizens.

And these shortcomings show.

When we commissioned a survey asking college graduates to name the father of the Constitution, only 19.8% answered correctly. Historical literacy, one could say, is in a dismal state. How is that possible with all this Constitution Day brouhaha?

Most schools, it would seem, do care about teaching the history of the founding—just not enough to teach it themselves. There are lots of groups that offer programing for Constitution Day and it can be tempting to think a one-time blow-out will make the lessons of history stick. The University of South Carolina’s President, Harry Pastides, even pointed to Constitution Day programming and claimed it made up for USC’s failure to teach the founding documents. This is despite a state law requiring such instruction.

This attitude demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding about what it means to “teach” something. Teaching history does not mean you occasionally mark the passing of historical events. Teaching history means engaging students deeply in the material so that, with luck, they will not only be able to tell you that it took years to ratify the Constitution after its signing, they’ll know why. And some might even know how those decisions impact the ones we’re making today. In short, history, Constitutional or otherwise, is not a one-day lesson. It deserves our year-round attention

 

Update: Now that our Constitution Challenge is closed, here are the answers! What did you miss?

1. How many times has the Constitution been changed since 1791?

A: 17

2. What was the primary concern for states during ratification?

A: The inclusion of a Bill of Rights.

3. Who is called the "Father of the Constitution"?

A: James Madison.

4. How many signatures are on the Constitution?

A: 39

5. Who was invited to, but did not attend the Constitutional Convention because he "smelt a rat"?

A: Patrick Henry

6. How many cabinet positions are laid out in the Constitution?

A: None, the positions were established by tradition

7. If President Obama and Vice President Biden were both unable to serve, who would be acting President?

A: John Boehner, as Speaker of the House

8. How long is a senate term?

A: 6 years

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