COMMENTARY: Action needed for constitutional literacy

A recent Annenberg Public Policy Center survey revealed a startling fact about Americans’ ignorance about their own government. According to findings, 30 percent of respondents could not name a single branch of government, while 30 percent could identify only a single branch. Clearly, there needs to be improvement in constitutional literacy.

Initially, any increase in adult knowledge about the Constitution and the structure of government begins with K-12 curriculum. The dearth of courses on American history and civics must be replaced with a coordinated focus on the Constitution.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

The fixation with science, technology, engineering and mathematics must be augmented with an appreciation for the arts and humanities, such that STEM should be retooled to read “STEAM.” We need to go full STEAM for our youth in ensuring that courses which furnish the basics about American government are offered.

Additionally, although many colleges and universities require that all students take American government, others do not, and that must change. Strengthening the curriculum to include classes or courses on the Constitution may not satisfy certain educational fads or even be politically correct, but those should never be criteria for learning.

Another way to increase learning about the Constitution is to augment courses with visual and first-hand learning.

Along these lines, showing videos/DVDs on the history and development of the Constitution would help. As a youth in grade school, I can remember watching old “Biography” shows with Mike Wallace, which assisted me in becoming familiar with the presidency and those who have occupied the office.

Going on field trips to historical sites is always a memory-maker. However, it is recognized that not every school and school district has funds for these excursions. But, because American government is highlighted by federalism, there are many places and events at the local and state level which could be just as valuable as a trip to Washington, D.C.

Simulating events such as the Constitutional Convention of 1787 or a presidential election can simultaneously engender knowledge and excitement about content.

Not all learning takes place at school. The political socialization process for young people should include a healthy dose of information about government, partly a function of parenting. That experience can take many forms.

In my own case, an annual trip to a friend’s house to commemorate Memorial Day became more than a chance to hang with friends. It was a ritual which became a rite of passage. Not surprisingly, while many childhood memories have faded with time, the parade, saluting, and listening to Taps being played have remained part of my consciousness.

Some organizations have sponsored events which also have pertinence to improving constitutional literacy. For example, the YMCA and Kent County government in Delaware have scheduled Youth in Government days, whereby students simulate the governing process by following a bill to passage. A similar program has been run by Delaware’s congressional delegation. Alternately, there are voter pre-registration procedures available in some states and locales which ready youth for voting in advance of their eligibility.

Simply being able to recite the branches of American government is inadequate for what is expected of a citizen. If immigrants have to know the basics of government to be successfully naturalized, it behooves native residents to learn likewise.

Comprehending the nuances of the Constitution is a lifelong process which shouldn’t cease at maturity. As with all successful education, the task is to transform the importance of needing to acquire material to wanting to discover new features about humanity’s oldest operating governing document of its kind.

Editor’s note: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He has taught and published extensively on the American Constitution and constitutional law issues.

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