Into the Darkness: Where Constitutional Illiteracy Is Leading Us

John W. Whitehead

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, 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% 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. 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 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 (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.

It was with those ideas in mind that our forefathers gave us the Constitution. As the Preamble proclaims:

We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this CONSTITUTION for the United States of America.

It was no idle happenstance that the Constitution opens with these three powerful words: “We the people…” This, in effect, makes “the people” the guardians of America’s future.

Thomas Jefferson recognized that an educated citizenry is the only real assurance that freedom will survive–a citizenry educated on the basic freedoms. Jefferson wrote: “I know of no safe repository of the ultimate powers of our society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” Jefferson wrote that pre-university education was to “instruct the mass of our citizens in…their rights, interests, and duties as men and citizens.” As for university education, Jefferson said it was “to form the statesmen, legislators and judges on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend.” Furthermore, “The People are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” But that’s where the problem arises for us today. Most citizens have little, if any, knowledge about their basic rights. And our educational system does a poor job of teaching the basic freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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.

Thus, ignorant of the very basis of citizenship and overwhelmed by the informational glut of modernity, it is little wonder that many, ostrich-like, are allowing an out-of-control government to move forward unimpeded. Yet while most may feel snug and secure in their technological wombs, they are only temporarily keeping the wolf at bay. Hiding from reality is not the solution. In fact, non-participation by the citizenry only makes matters worse. “Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote,” the drama critic George Jean Nathan once remarked. I would add that bad officials will run roughshod over citizens who are clueless.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book The Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks) is available in bookstores and online. He can be contacted at [email protected]. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at

2 Responses to “Into the Darkness: Where Constitutional Illiteracy Is Leading Us”

  1. Ignorance of the Constitution is not new to America and I would guess the average 16 year old in the 1820’s or 1950’s knew as little about the Constitution as the average 16 year old knows today. I was a product of the fifties and sixties public school system where things like civics, the Constitution etc were taught and taught well, but most of us knew zip when we graduated because frankly that subject was thought dry and boring compared to some other subjects.

    I think Mr. Whitehead is way, way off target when he advocates that our leaders should be forced to take a course in the Constitution and then pass a thorough exam before they are allowed to take office. Here Mr Whitehead shows his own ignorance of the Constitution , because our Constitution clearly states the requirements for taking office and passing Mr Whitehead’s test is not one of them.

    I also love the authors conservative false choice that we shoudn’t spend so much time on math and science and instead focus more on civics etc. Mr. Whitehead is wrong- there is enough space in our brains to learn all three and more.


  2. I don’t think the student of the 1800s or even the 1950s were at all on a par with today’s students; they would have left today’s students coughing in the dust of ignorance.

    Test scores over the past 50 years have been continually dropping despite pouring more and more money into the public education system. Even if the educational level of students in the 1800s was equivalent to that of 50 years ago, it would still be far better than today.

    My family homeschools, and we have copies of many textbooks from the 1800s that we have used in educating our children. We have used the McGuffey Readers, and you should take a look at some of the material presented to children of the 1800s even in grade school: lessons on Scripture and salvation (gasp), the character of William Wilberforce), the Puritans, patriotism of Western literature, the American Revolution, and more.

    Founder Noah Webster wrote many of the textbooks used in the 1800s, including his History of the United States, and I’m sure he handled the topic of constitutional education most thoroughly.

    Look at the “simple” New England Primer which, along with the Bible, was used during colonial times and for generations afterward to teach children to read.

    No, children of previous generations were much better educated than the ignoramuses of today. True, any person in any age can reject and cast aside the learning laid at their feet, but previous generations had to work a lot harder to ignore a good education than more recent ones.

    I’d have to agree with you that math and science shouldn’t be de-emphasized, but there is definitely a lot of crap in the school day that should be jettisoned in favor of reading, history, social studies, etc.

    And just because no course or test exists for elected officials right now is not to say that one might not be a good idea. Republicans, at least, do instruct newcomers on constitutional basics. Since the Constitution is the highest law of our nation, and all other laws must conform to its parameters, I don’t think familiarity with the Constitution could possibly be emphasized too much for those who take an oath to uphold and protect it.