by Howard Stephenson
America is failing to transmit basic civil knowledge and skills to the next generation of citizens, said Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine M. Durham in a Law Day speech sponsored by the Utah State Bar.
I have often bemoaned the economic and civic illiteracy which is so prevalent among U.S. voters. So I was pleased when Mrs. Durham eloquently described America’s lack of constitutional, civic, and legal literacy. But more than just bemoaning it, Chief Justice Durham is actually doing something about it.
Durham said that “Numerous studies, opinion polls, and editorials, not to mention large quantities of academic and popular literature, bemoan the current state of our young when it comes to knowledge of the constitutional system we live under, and to levels of individual “civic engagement,” by which I mean a sense of personal responsibility for the continuation of the republic at any level of government- local, state or national. You have heard the “horror” stories. Public confidence in most governmental institutions has declined dramatically in the past fifty years.”
The Chief Justice cited a 1997 survey by the National Constitution Center which revealed that more than 90% of Americans agreed that “the U.S. Constitution is important to them” and that it “makes them proud.” But paradoxically, the Center’s surveys have shown that people have an appalling lack of knowledge of a document that impacts their daily lives. Eighty-three percent of respondents admit that they know only “some” or “very little” about the specifics of the Constitution. For example, only 6% can name four rights guaranteed by the First Amendment; 62% cannot name all three branches of the federal government; 35% believe the Constitution mandates English as the official language; and more than half of Americans do not know the number of U.S. Senators.
Four out of five surveyed did not know the number of amendments to the federal Constitution, and one out of every six believed that the Constitution established America as a “Christian nation.” No one seems to have asked whether Americans understand the state constitutional sources of the basic right of a free, public education, but I would be surprised if a significant number of Americans on the street even know their states have constitutions. If the federal Constitution and the Bill of Rights were put to a vote today, pollsters tell us that they would not be adopted. One survey found that “many people not only did not recognize the bill of rights, but, without benefit of its title, described it as ‘Communist Propaganda.’”
The results of the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress of civic knowledge administered in 1998 were discouraging, Durham said. About three quarters of all students scored below the level of proficiency. Thirty-five percent of the high-school seniors tested below basic, indicating near-total civic ignorance. Another 39 percent were only at the basic level, a level below what they need to function competently as citizens.
Durham told the Law Day luncheon crowd that one advocate for civic learning, William A. Galston, noted that since 1960, every significant indicator of political engagement by matriculating college freshman has fallen by at least half. He warned that this “withdrawal of citizens from public affairs disturbs the balance of public deliberation” and noted that civic attitudes formed when young tend to persist throughout adult life. Galston wrote: “If today’s young Americans continue to regard civic affairs as irrelevant, they are likely to abstain from political involvement throughout their lives.”
The Chief Justice agreed with Galston that the evidence of our failure to transmit basic civil knowledge and skills to the next generation of citizens is now incontrovertible.
Durham said that the law related education movement in this country is approximately 25 years old and has had great success in developing educational materials and programs to foster in elementary and secondary students a practical understanding of the law, the legal system, and their rights and responsibilities as citizens. However, she said the use of those materials has been lacking, noting that less than one percent of America’s elementary and secondary students are currently exposed to systematic curricula in law-related studies.
The Chief Justice pointed to a project begun two years ago by a small group of judges, administrators, and lawyers who began a process of working with the State Office of Education to write civic education curriculum which is now available in classrooms. Now, she said, law students, lawyers and judges will volunteer to assist in training teachers, in volunteering in the classrooms, and in bringing students into the courtroom, to ensure that constitutional, civic, and legal literacy is achieved in Utah.
Chief Justice Durham reminded us that men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, drawing on the classical sources that were part of their own education, believed that the paradigms for educating rulers – princes – must be extended in the new republic to the children who were themselves the future rulers.
Quoting contemporary writers, Durham said that for Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the idea of access to education for all was a persistent theme. Adams spoke with a sense of urgency, both for the present and for perpetuity: “No People will tamely surrender their Liberties, nor can they be easily subdued, when Knowledge is diffused and Virtue preserved.”
Let the learning begin.
by Howard Stephenson