Many Americans lack a strong understanding of the Constitution, experts say at D.C. event

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A week before Constitution Day, the non-profit group Essentials in Education launched its “National Constitutional Literacy Campaign” at the National Press Club.

EIE’s CEO Chuck Stetson told the Associated Press the campaign is designed to educate Americans on the importance of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. EIE also plans to create the “Freedom in America Series,” a series of interactive educational materials.


Photo credit: Kim Davies via Flickr, CC 2.0

The event on Thursday featured speakers from across the nation and included a former congressman, a radio host, several educators and leaders of multiple civics-oriented non-profits. The 11 speakers each had the chance to explain why they value Constitutional education and what their organizations are doing to promote it.

This event — and the campaign — is a way of gathering together people who work to promote better education and understanding of the Constitution. Many of the speakers cited troubling statistics like a survey conducted by market research firm GfK and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, in which 10 percent of college graduates said Judge Judy was a Supreme Court justice and 46 percent of college graduates didn’t know the length of Congressional terms.

Michael B. Poliakoff, vice president of policy for ACTA, said a lack of understanding of the Constitution is more than an embarrassment, it’s “a threat to our free society.”

The audience seemed to agree wholeheartedly, and several other speakers made similar comments about the dire need for a better understanding of the Constitution and the American government in general. While there was consensus about the need for better education, each speaker had their own idea of how best to achieve this.

Poliakoff cited a different study that showed only 14 percent of colleges and universities in the United States require a foundational course in American government or history. His proposal: enact state laws that require schools teach these courses.

And then there’s Melinda Cooperman, the associate director of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project. She spoke about the project, which sends American University Washington College of Law students to high schools to teach them about the Constitution. The goal is twofold: to teach students their rights and to encourage them to pursue careers in law.

This is particularly important, she said, because most of the high school students in the program are low-income and minority students: groups that are underrepresented in law careers.

When it comes to education, budget cuts and funding are always part of the equation. Kerry Sautner, head of education at the Constitutional Center in Philadelphia, pointed out that both private and governmental funding goes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education much more frequently and in larger sums than civics education.

She said this has serious implications because a solid civics education makes young people more likely to vote and be involved in both their community and their government.

Sautner went on to say that while STEM education is popular because it’s seen as fun, civics education is “moving and it moves you further than fun ever could.”

Civic education and participation is one of the Student Press Law Center’s key issues, as student journalism is ‘participatory civics.’ See what we’re doing about it.

Tagged: civic education, Civic Engagement, Civic Youth, recent-news, United States Constitution