The Scary Consequences of Our Mindless Indifference to the History of the Constitution

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Mr. Lane is a Professor of Law at Hofstra University School of Law and senior Fellow at the Brennan Center of Justice. Mr. Oreskes is the executive editor of the International Herald Tribune and was an editor and the national political correspondent at the New York Times. This article was adapted from their recent book The Genius of America—How the Constitution Saved Our country and Why It Can Again.

America’s greatest strength and greatest weakness are the same thing. We are not burdened by a sense of history, our own or anyone else’s. Our detachment from history has liberated us to focus forward. We look to the future in a way that many other societies envy.

But this same quality can also disconnect us from an understanding of our society and our government. To America, this can be particularly threatening. Every nation has a set of political values and principles. But ours are, by comparison, more vital to us, as Americans, than a similar set of values would be to the people of many other nations.

Ours is not a country "defined by blood, clan, land origin or religious belief," Ray Suarez once observed. We are what we have done. Or, as Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard framed it, "more than any other leading democracy, America is a country that preserves its unity through a shared belief in its Constitution, its institutions of government, and its democratic principles."

So it is particularly important that we pay attention to our Constitution, institutions and democratic principles.

But over the last thirty years just the opposite has been happening. Our sense of our own past, to put it politely, is thin and growing thinner. The evidence for this is all around us.

A report conducted this year by Intercollegiate Studies Institute finds that high school graduates cannot pass a basic civics test. The average grade was 50%. Four years of college do not make the matter much better in most cases, the report found. "The average college senior knows astoundingly little about America’s history, government, international relations and market economy, earning an 'F' on the American civic literacy exam with a score of 54.2%," said the report.

Perhaps the most disturbing fact about this report is how unsurprising it is. From the 1960’s onward civic education has been declining and by the 1980’s had nearly vanished. "It is striking how little energy is devoted to trying to engage citizens more actively in the affairs of government," Derek Bok wrote in 2001, "Civic education in the public schools has been almost totally eclipsed by a preoccupation with preparing the workforce of a global economy. Most universities no longer treat the preparation of citizens as an explicit goal of their curriculum."

No one who cares can claim they did not see this coming. Various surveys have demonstrated this decline. One in 1976 "found that civic competence diminished markedly from 1969 to 1976." Another in 1988 found that civic knowledge had continued declining since 1976 and another in 2002 found "that the nation's citizenry is woefully under-educated about the fundamentals of our American Democracy."

But many Americans don’t seem to care. Civic Literacy is one of those "do-good" subjects often dismissed by supposedly more hard-nosed or more pragmatic people. This is a mistake. Our political system is functioning less well than it could, less well than Americans say they would like it to, because of a drift away from an understanding of, let alone a commitment to, the democratic principles embodied in the Constitution. Those principles have guided the country for 220 years, the longest run of democracy in human history. But now most high school students can’t even identify the principles or answer questions about the system built on them. Indeed, many Americans of all ages can’t identify them. "People revere the Constitution but know so little about it," the Senate’s great institutional voice, Robert Byrd, said two years ago, "and that goes for some of my fellow Senators." If even some of our leaders know little about our basic principles and institutions (even as they work in them) how can we expect the system to work well?

The framers elevated process over result. This is one of the striking distinctions between their Constitutional system and the various "isms" of left and right that have fallen while democracies have prospered by mobilizing human spirit and capital. The communists, the fascists the national socialists all put first the goal of a new, and in their view, better society. Government’s purpose was to enact that society on behalf of the people. The end was more important than the means. In Madison’s democracy the citizens would decide in common what that better life entailed. Government’s role, under the Constitution, was to channel society’s conflicts and struggles into a field of battle with rules that protected the liberties of individuals and encouraged compromise. The most venerated artifact in all of American history is, remarkably, a document laying out governmental process, a Roberts Rules of Order for the new Age of Democracy, "this Constitution for the United States of America."

But to maintain a commitment to process above product requires an understanding of the larger principles—why the framers built the system they built to allow democracy in a large and growing country.

What all these reports on the decline of civic education are really, frighteningly, recording is the slow drift away from our bond to the Constitution and its principles.

It is not that American’s do not accept the Constitution, indeed they love it. But as Senator Byrd says they no longer have any idea of its contents or its context. For them government has become a place to seek a product and they grow angry at government when it does not deliver (as it often cannot during periods of polarization such as now). "Americans have expectations for politics and the political process that are often unrealistic," said Bok. "Convinced that presidents can often accomplish more than is humanly possible, that legislators should be able to arrive at sensible decisions without prolonged disagreement or controversy, and that politicians should refrain from pandering to the voters yet still reflect the views of their constituents, the public seems fated to endure repeated disappointment over the government and those who run it."

In our recent book, we call attention to this drift away from an understanding of our Constitutional system and to encourage Americans to reverse it—not just because it would be a nice thing to do but because we see solid evidence our system will work better if we do.

In his farewell speech in 1989 Ronald Reagan wondered if the country was "doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?" Teaching history shouldn’t be cut to the latest fashion, said Reagan. "If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. Let’s start with some basics; more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual."

Reagan concluded with a warning that seems prescient in our dispirited moment. "I am warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit."

American memory is at the heart of something we call our Constitutional Conscience. The Constitution was one of the most brilliantly creative political documents ever written. Most Americans these days think of it as a listing of rights. But the Bill of Rights, of course, was a political afterthought to assure ratification. The heart of the Constitution was a set of political principles and a design for government to execute them. Those political principles -- things like compromise, tolerance of difference, respect for process, and openness to debate -- are things Americans say we want now as an antidote to our brittle and uncompromising modern politics. But since Americans are not learning their history they do not seem to realize the principles they long for are in their own founding document.

Civic illiteracy erodes our American unity. It is our commitment to and understanding of the Constitution that makes us Americans, as much as anything else.

Without knowledge of our Constitution and its context we are losing the thread that makes us Americans. Professor Michael Sandel described this a decade ago when he perceived "a growing danger that individually and collectively we will find ourselves slipping into a fragmented, storyless condition." In this condition, "there is no continuity between presents and past, and therefore no responsibility and therefore no possibility for acting together to govern ourselves."

For most of our history we built on the Constitution, internalizing its principles in what historian Michael Kammen calls Constitutionalism. That sense of the Constitution and its principles is what we mean by our Constitutional conscience. It is, as Senator Lowell Weicker said soon after Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, "what holds us all together." Without it, our country becomes different, less appealing. Reagan worried about this as he left office. We worry about it now. It is why those failing grades on that civic literacy quiz are more than an academic matter.

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Jason Blake Keuter - 10/12/2007

Tolerance, respect for debate and openness were not the principles of the Constitution makers at all.

In fact, the Constitution is designed assuming that people will seek power and seek what is best for them regardless of others and thus must be forced to compromise. The Constitution is not a document that assumes human nature to in accord with liberal values; instead, it is a document that takes a realistic view of man and seeks to prevent him from using government to magnify his worst characteristics. The key principle underlying the constitution is a fundamental mistrust of man with power: it is a document that restrains government power; restrains the ability of factions to seize power; it restrains abuse of power by majorities; it restrains abuse of power my minorities; and it doesn't demand of people that they be anything other than what they are - self-interested.

This is not a dismal view of man, by the way : a person lacking self-interest might best be called suicidal or a slave or a pawn of another. To say we're lacking in "virtues" such as "tolerance" and "openness" to debate and then to advocate greater "education" on the Constitution is itself a violation of the core principle of distrust of government power - who, after all, would be charged with educating if not government officials (aka teachers and professors)?

And would one be intolerant and strident and not open to debate if one didn't comport themselves the way the teacher said? And would that simply be code for agreeing with the teacher?

The Constitution has made it as far as it has, not because people have been so educated about it but because the Constitution accords so well with human nature - it does not say people are bad because they're intolerant and selfish so let's make them good. It says instead, people will never get what tehy want if they don't consider what others want - and it structures the government to make sure that no one person's agenda can be stuffed into the throat of someone for whom that agenda does no good.

Like say tax payer subsidized tolerance seminars.........

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

What this synopsis (and apparently also the book) fail to do is explain why this decline in "civic literacy," so obvious for so long, has been allowed to persist unchecked for so long.

A couple of thoughts:

Between the 1950s and 1970s the average number of hours children spent watching TV rose markedly and has remained high since. An avalanche of studies -that you should not expect to hear about on TV- show clearly that it rots brains. TV is starting to lose its addictive powers to computer gadgetry which does not rot brains in the same way, but which has clear negative consequences for attention spans, civility, and societal functionality.

2. POLITICS Partly for reasons related to the techno-decadence of Point 1 above, opinion-makers on the so-called "left" and "right" have been worshipping at the altar of Ignorance for decades.

a. In mindless lock-step, "Liberal-progressives" march to bury their collective heads in the sand whenever a suggestion is made that public education is relative decline.
"Since time immemorial, "old people have always been complaining about how the youth aren't being trained the way they used to be" runs, more or less, the mantra. [True enough, but civilizations have committed suicide for time immemorial as well. The fact that most warnings about the imminent collapse of civilization have proven false is not proof that no such warning can ever be valid.]

b. Meanwhile, so-called "conservatives" have become champions of a different, and even more perverse form of Ignorance-Worshipping. With supreme indifference to their massive hypocrisy, "the Right" has enslaved itself to the notion that it's not how you play the game, its whether you win or lose. The ends justify the means now. The Constitution and civic knowledge are not being forsaken in favor of dumbed-down "inclusiveness" but instead are to be seen as pure objects of manipulation, fodder for distortion-based propagandizing.

One of the most despised dangers in the minds of the Constitution's framers was the "spirit of party."
As organizations, political parties do not have the clout now that they did fifty years ago. But their "spirit," the political-party-ization of the elecorate, is stronger than ever. The "progressive" assault on all traditional values (including civic literacy) has ossified into a ritualized devotion to dumbed-down feel-good "engagement" of young minds. The "conservative" rage against this trashing of traditional principles, has led to the trashing of the very concept of principle itself, making knowledge and civic awareness a tool of sound-bites and short-term "winning."

Throughout this ongoing mass decadence sometimes mischaracterized as a "culture war," the "silent majority" in the political "middle" can lose its collective civic knowledge and responsibility in obsolescent materialism, "Reality TV", NASCAR, Gangsta-Rap, and computer fads.

William R. Everdell - 10/8/2007

Reporting from the trenches. At my school in Brooklyn the Constitution finds its way into every history course, from 5th-grade U.S. History to the World History elective and the high school Debate team.

But it's a hard row to hoe. Nothing—precisely nothing—about the Constitution comes to my students from the great national megaphone of commercial broadcasting and entertainment; and their production budget is a good deal greater than mine, or indeed, that of all U.S. "social studies" teachers combined.

Worse, we don't pledge allegiance to it. We pledge to the flag—which is not in it. What besides the Constitution and the laws and treaties made pursuant to it do we Americans have in common? No wonder present-day American citizens, who should know better, think that the president makes our laws.