2011-04-08 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

Into the Darkness: Where Constitutional Illiteracy Is Leading Us (Part I)
By John Whitehead

“Unless we teach the ideas that make America a miracle of government, it will go away in your kids’ lifetimes, and we will be a fable. You have to find the time and creativity to teach it in schools, and if you don’t, you will lose it.

You will lose it to the darkness, and what this country represents is a tiny twinkle of light in a history of oppression and darkness and cruelty.

If it lasts for more than our lifetime, for more than our kids’ lifetime, it is only because we put some effort into teaching what it is, the ideas of America: the idea of opportunity, mobility, freedom of thought, freedom of assembly.”—Richard Dreyfuss, Oscar-winning actor and civics education activist, on The Bill Maher Show, Nov. 26, 2006.

When Newsweek recently asked 1,000 adult U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29 percent of respondents couldn’t name the current vice president of the United States. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why America fought the Cold War. More critically, 44 percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day (the Fourth of July) on a calendar.

Of course, civic and constitutional ignorance are nothing new with Americans. In fact, it is something that the public education system has been fostering for a long time. For example, a study in Arizona found that only 3.5 percent of public high school students would be able to pass the U.S. Immigration Services’ citizenship exam, a figure not significantly exceeded by the passing rates of charter and private school students, at 7 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

A survey of American adults by the American Civic Literacy Program resulted in some equally disheartening findings. Seventy-one percent failed the test. Moreover, having a college education does very little to increase civic knowledge, as demonstrated by the abysmal 32 percent pass rate of people holding not just a bachelor’s degree. It is little wonder that a 2006 survey by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that fewer than one percent of adults who responded to a national poll could identify the five rights protected by the First Amendment — freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly and the right to petition the government. On the other hand, more than half (52%) of the respondents could name at least two of the characters in the animated Simpson television family, and 20 percent could name all five. And although half could name none of the freedoms in the First Amendment, a majority (54%) could name at least one of the three judges on the TV program American Idol, 41 percent could name two and one-fourth could name all three.

In a culture infatuated with celebrity and consumed with entertainment, it should come as no surprise that the American people know virtually nothing about their rights. They are constitutionally illiterate. “There was a depth of confusion that we weren’t expecting,” noted Dave Anderson, executive director of the museum. “I think people take their freedoms for granted. Bottom line.”

But it gets worse. Many who responded to the survey had a strange conception of what was in the First Amendment. For example, 21 percent said the “right to own a pet” was listed someplace between “Congress shall make no law” and “redress of grievances.” Some 17 percent said that the First Amendment contained the “right to drive a car,” and 38 percent believed that “taking the Fifth” was part of the First Amendment. Think about this for a moment. How could James Madison, who depended on horses for transportation in his day, have placed the “right to drive a car” in the First Amendment? Educators do not fare much better in understanding and implementing the Constitution in the classroom. A study conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut found that while educators seem to support First Amendment rights in principle, they are reluctant to apply such rights in the schools. They support severe restrictions on freedom by forbidding student distribution of political and religious materials, thus endorsing a hypocritical double standard where belief and action collide. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the zero tolerance policies that expel children from school for innocent acts and speech without a hearing and regardless of circumstances.

This obviously creates confusion for students when it comes time to learn about the Bill of Rights. Government leaders and politicians are also illinformed.

Although they take an oath to uphold, support and defend the Constitution against “enemies foreign and domestic,” their lack of education about our fundamental rights often causes them to be enemies of the Bill of Rights.

Those who gave us the Constitution and the Bill of Rights believed that all citizens had rights that no government could violate — such as the right to free speech, the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents, the right to an attorney, the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishments, etc. And if any of these rights were violated, the Founders (as we call them) believed that the American people had the right and the authority to resist government encroachment of their rights. Abraham Lincoln’s famous declaration in the Emancipation Proclamation that we are a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” means exactly what it says.

The government exists at the behest of its citizens. It is there to protect, defend and even enhance our freedoms, not violate them.

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