A new survey shows huge swaths of the American public don’t know the most basic tenets of their government, and a Hillsdale College politics professor says the lack of knowledge is playing a huge role in the politics of outrage and violence, since the perpetrators have no idea how the United States is supposed to work.
Earlier this month, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania released a survey showing a dismal comprehension of constitutional basics. A third of Americans could not name a single branch of government. Another 27 percent could only name one. Only 26 percent could list the legislative, executive and judicial branches.
When asked to name one of the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, 37 percent could not name any. Forty-eight percent did come up with freedom of speech, but when asked to name another, only 15 percent could name freedom of religion, 14 percent cited freedom of the press, 10 percent knew of the right to assembly and just 3 percent were aware of their right to petition the government to address their grievances.
Hillsdale College Politics Professor Adam Carrington says these numbers are consistent with what he’s seen in recent years.
“Polls have shown this consistently. This is not an anomaly. This is a consistent lack of knowledge of that by which we are supposed to govern ourselves. So it’s a fundamental and massive problem,” said Carrington.
Carrington says the problem is especially acute given the responsibility placed in American citizens to run their government.
“If we were in a monarchy, I would say it doesn’t matter at all; but we’re a republic, where people rule through laws, and they particularly rule through the Constitution. For those who exercise the people’s rule to be held accountable, you actually have to know the standard by which you’ve established to hold them accountable,” said Carrington.
In addition, he says ignorance about the system feeds the rabid political environment that exists today.
“People believe that what’s constitutional is what I like and what’s unconstitutional is what I don’t like, and that’s just not the way that our system of government works,” said Carrington.
Carrington said critical concepts like the separation of powers and checks and balances are part of the genius of America, and when people are clueless about these ideas and why they exist, politics become toxic and even dangerous.
“I think when people are ignorant of how those things work, they basically get frustrated with the system and reject the very things that make it effective. I think that’s why you see some people wanting to turn to violence, some people not understanding the way the system is supposed to work,” said Carrington.
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“This kind of government can’t survive, at least for long, unless you have that bedrock principle of government of the people and a people who are worthy of governing themselves,” he said.
How did civic illiteracy get to this point? Carrington sees a couple of prime factors, starting with the greater emphasis on education being a pipeline to a good job and an almost exclusive focus on the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math.
He says there’s nothing wrong with those subjects but insists education is about much more than that.
“A place like Hillsdale and other places that have an older view of education and say, ‘Well, no, actually learning to be a good citizen is an essential part of education.’ Sure, you can be a nurse or a teacher or a lawyer in your day job, but when are you not a citizen? I think that lack focus has caused a massive problem as far as our civic literacy,” said Carrington.
But in addition to schools steering the focus of education away from citizenship, Carrington says there’s another troubling reality to consider.
“I think it is also due to a rejection by many of the American founding and of the Constitution. Some people believe it’s not worth studying, not just because they are focused on getting jobs as the role of education but they’ve rejected the very principles that undergird the Constitution itself,” said Carrington.
Nonetheless, Carrington says education is the key to turning this civic illiteracy around.
“It has to be through education and I think it has to become a commitment of the society in general. It has to be a commitment of our curriculum in our schools. It has to be something that’s taught in entertainment and that’s taught in homes,” said Carrington.
In recent years, Hillsdale College has offered free online courses on the Constitution and other aspects of the American system of government.
“Hillsdale’s really been trying to push civic education, having online courses and other things, because until the people know their own government it’s not going to get better. I think there has to be a concerted, dedicated effort to doing that,” said Carrington.
He encourages anyone lacking in civic knowledge to rectify that by learning about the founding and helping to turn civic literacy in the right direction.
“Hillsdale has tried to offer a lot of free resources and classes online – on the courts, on the Federalist Papers, on the presidency, on the Constitution – to try to give you the resources to bridge that gap, so that you can be a good citizen. You can be a knowledgeable citizen that can take part in the kind of renewal of self-government that we so sorely need,” said Carrington.