Published September 17, 2010
Since 2005, thanks to the late Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.V.), all American colleges and universities receiving federal aid (and that’s all of them, except for a few schools like Hillsdale College), are now required on September 17th of each year “to hold an educational program on the United States Constitution.”
Why September 17th? Because that was when the new U.S. Constitution was signed by its drafters in Philadelphia in 1787 (it would not become official until June 21, 1788 when North Carolina became the ninth State to ratify the document).
Consequently, in order to qualify for federal funding, and boy how colleges depend upon federal largesse, America’s institutions of higher learning are now forced each year to hold campus-wide lectures, conferences, debates, and the like on a variety of constitutional topics, with the quality of such academic offerings also varying to a large degree. And, apart from a legitimate debate about whether such federal mandates are constitutional in the first place, it is hard not to see the benefit of taking some time each year to commemorate and celebrate the incredible and lasting achievement that is the U.S. Constitution.
Still, one is left wondering, after the feel-good nature of Constitution Day is over, whether a single day of study is enough to instill in American undergraduates a thorough knowledge of and appreciation for the enduring governing principles and institutions that make-up our constitutional republic? Because when you peel back the onion, so to speak, on this question, you soon discover that our best and brightest are actually scandalously ignorant of America’s founding documents.
I know this because for a few years now, I have been directing the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s (ISI) civic literacy program, a national initiative designed to assess the extent of civic learning that is occurring on today’s college campuses, and the results have been nothing but atrocious. After giving a basic multiple-choice civics test to approximately 14,000 freshmen and 14,000 seniors from over 80 schools, and then testing the nation’s adult population, college educated and not, we have discovered an epidemic of civic ignorance, particularly when it comes to topics like the U.S. Constitution (for more details on ISI’s full civic literacy findings, go to www.americancivicliteracy.org).
For example, surveyed college seniors/graduates received a failing grade when attempting to answer multiple choice questions on the following constitutional topics: federalism (44%), judicial review (42%), congressional powers (29%), women’s suffrage (58%), representative democracy (58%), the establishment clause (48%), The Federalist Papers (50%), and the Anti-Federalists (44%). And they only earned a “D” on these fundamental issues: the three branches of government (64%), the war power (62%), and federal foreign policymaking (68%).
It would seem then, obviously, that something is amiss when it comes to collegiate civic education, and it starts with a fragmented college curriculum that does not require core courses for all its graduates, regardless of major, on basic American government and history (better teaching would also help). Now sure, K-12 education shares a great deal of blame for this predicament, and the same solution is obvious – more courses and better teaching on basic American civics.
But college is not only where our elementary and secondary teachers are trained, but it is also where our society’s future leaders are groomed, and regardless of your professional aspirations, we are all citizens, with a desperate need for the wisdom that only comes with a firm grasp of America’s constitutional system.
It’s clearly time for America’s colleges and universities to stop paying lip service to the Constitution, with often half-hearted one-day “Constitution Day” events, and start requiring and teaching well courses on American constitutional history. Only with that kind of re-dedication will our institutions of higher learning be able to correct this disturbing trend of civic ignorance that seems to be sweeping today’s college campuses.
So, with all that said, let’s see on this Constitution Day if you know more about the U.S. Constitution than the typical college graduate. It shouldn’t be hard! Good Luck! Answers are below.
1. What is federalism?*
2. The power of judicial review was established in: *
3. The Federalist (or The Federalist Papers) was written to: *
4. The principle of the “separation of powers” suggests that: *
5. Which of the following is NOT among the official powers of Congress? *
6. What are the three branches of government? +
7. The United States Electoral College: *
8. What impact did the Anti-Federalists have on the United States Constitution? #
9. What part of the government has the power to declare war?+
10. In the area of United States foreign policy, Congress shares power with the: #
*Denotes an ISI-developed question
+ Denotes a U.S. Citizenship Exam question
# Denotes a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 12th Grade Civics Test Question.
Dr. Richard Brake is Co-Chair of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board. For more details regarding ISI’s past and current civic literacy studies, and to take the test on-line, please go to www.americancivicliteracy.org.
QUIZ ANSWERS: 1. d 2. b 3. a 4. a 5. c 6. a 7. d 8. a 9. a 10. a
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