Into the Darkness: Where Constitutional Illiteracy Is Leading Us

By John W. 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

When Newsweek recently asked 1,000 adult U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29% 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% were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6% 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% 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% and 14%, 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% pass rate of people holding not just a bachelor’s degree but some sort of graduate-level 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% 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% 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% said the “right to own a pet” was listed someplace between “Congress shall make no law” and “redress of grievances.” Some 17% said that the First Amendment contained the “right to drive a car,” and 38% 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. Government leaders and politicians are also ill-informed. 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 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.

So what’s the solution?

Instead of forcing children to become part of the machinery of society by an excessive emphasis on math and science in the schools, they should be prepared to experience the beauty of becoming responsible citizens. This will mean teaching them their rights and urging them to exercise their freedoms to the fullest.

Some critics are advocating that students pass the United States citizenship exam in order to graduate from high school. Others recommend that it must be a prerequisite for attending college. I’d go so far as to argue that students should have to pass the citizenship exam before graduating from grade school.

Anyone taking public office should have a working knowledge of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and should be held accountable for upholding their precepts. One way to ensure this would be to require government leaders to take a course on the Constitution and pass a thorough examination thereof before being allowed to take office.

If this constitutional illiteracy is not remedied and soon, I agree with Richard Dreyfuss that the miracle that was America will become a “fable.” And the darkness of an authoritarian government will be inevitable. In fact, we have already travelled far down that road.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Information about the Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.

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