Founding Principles Require Constant Education

Sunday was Constitution Day, a day to reflect on the greatest document ever written to shape and protect citizen rights in a representative democracy. However, the Constitution’s authors could not guarantee future generations would engage in their responsibility as citizens to study and live by the words they worked so hard to craft. They were right to worry.

Each year, The Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey is conducted ahead of the Sept. 17 observation of Constitution Day in America. It is conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy of the University of Pennsylvania. 

This year’s survey found that one-third of U.S. adults could not name all three branches of government – executive, legislative, and judicial. Nearly one-quarter could name only one or none.

Just over three-quarters of those surveyed could name freedom of speech as one of the five rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. What is surprising is that just 40% could name freedom of religion as a guaranteed right. Two-thirds of Americans don’t know that the right to assemble is guaranteed. Only 28% knew freedom of the press was a right. A fraction of Americans, only 9%, could identify petitioning our governments for a “redress of grievances” as a right.

“It is worrisome that one in six U.S. adults cannot name any of the branches of government and that only 1 in 20 can name all five freedoms protected by the First Amendment,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and director of the survey. 

“One is unlikely to cherish or work to protect freedoms one does not know one has and will have trouble holding elected and unelected leaders accountable if one does not understand the nature and prerogatives of each branch and the ways in which the power of each is kept in check.”

It is also worrisome that those who do not know the rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, or the depth of work and debate that went into writing those words, are more likely to approve of laws limiting or taking them away.

While Annenberg says it was surprising that 22% of Americans identified the right to bear arms as a First Amendment right, it isn’t. It is guaranteed in the Second Amendment. It is concerning that in some states where the First Amendment’s clear statement of rights is most under attack, Second Amendment rights supporters have gone to extreme lengths to interpret its vague and confusing language to favor gun ownership and the right to carry.

“I’m sure that the survey [found] terrible levels of knowledge, but this has been true since the founding, and the U.S. has survived,” Robert Weissberg, a retired University of Illinois professor who started teaching American politics in the 1960s, told The Washington Times.

“Our system does not depend on a well-informed citizenry,” he added. “If it did, we’d have vanished long ago.” We disagree.

It’s not the vanishing of our system that is so concerning, but its corruption – and what that allows. An ignorant citizenry is easily manipulated by populist movements; by passion without thought. 

Those who drafted America’s Constitution were students of democracies throughout history. They learned from past mistakes and incorporated the best of what they studied. They transformed their learning into a document that fit their time but hoped would provide a fortress against future would-be dictators. They feared a popular and powerful leader without respect for the Constitution, leading America toward a monarchy or dictatorship.

They feared the truth found in French philosopher Voltaire’s’ warning: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” They would have read Voltaire’s observation as they crafted the words of the Constitution.

We’ve seen Voltaire’s words come to life. Many of those most responsible for storming the U.S. Capitol Jan. 1, 2021, are now serving 10 to 22-year prison terms for insurrection against the United States. Nearly 300 rioters have been sentenced, some with 30 days in jail, fines, or probation. Some affiliated with that infamous day lost their jobs or saw their families torn apart.

They’ve suffered the harsh reality of believing the absurdities about the 2020 election.

Belief in absurdities continues, leading to death threats against elected officials, election workers, and journalists. Some of those making the threats are now on their way to jail. More will follow, driven by passion and false information – and their lack of knowledge about the U.S. Constitution.

In their book, “The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives,” Brook Manville and Josiah Ober cite several fundamental features at the core of citizen self-rule from classical Greece to today’s American representative democracy.

In studying about democratic governments, the Founders saw success founded in “collective decision-making. They fostered trust and a spirit of compromise. They conceived of themselves as organic, evolving entities rather than as sets of static players. They understood the importance of civic education, which reinforced the norms of citizenship rights and responsibilities,” G. John Ikenberry writes in a review of the book for Foreign Affairs magazine.

Most importantly… great democracies survived because they forged and maintained a ‘civic bargain,’ a political pact about who is a citizen, how decisions are made, and the distribution of responsibilities and entitlements.” 

As we forgo our responsibilities, the gap between those with the entitlements of wealth and power grows. Dissatisfaction with the way things are deepens, and populist movements take root – movements that can be manipulated by those with wealth and power.

“Civic education is essential to sustain our constitutional democracy. The habits of the mind, as well as ‘habits of the heart,’ the dispositions that inform the democratic ethos, are not inherited,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America” in the 1830s. 

Each generation is responsible for renewing that education; it is not inherited. It is taught. Our responsibility to embed in civic knowledge and a sense of study in citizens starts in our schools but is carried on through our community newspapers.