The American public continues to show a staggering level of ignorance about the basic principles of America’s Constitution and government, according to a new survey put out by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).
ACTA, which promotes high standards and a core curriculum for college students, commissioned a survey of 383 college graduates nationwide and quizzed them on basic American civics via a series of multiple-choice. The result were, for the most part, appalling.
When asked to choose among a list of four people which was on the U.S. Supreme Court, only 62 percent correctly chose Elena Kagan, while 10 percent chose Judith Sheindlin, better known to most of America as Judge Judy. One third of respondents couldn’t correctly identify the Bill of Rights as a series of amendments to the Constitution, only 54 percent could correctly state the term lengths for U.S. senators and representatives, and 32 percent thought John Boehner was president of the Senate rather than speaker of the House.
On some questions, an incorrect answer even drew more support than the correct one. Fifty-nine percent of respondents labeled Thomas Jefferson the “Father of the Constitution” (he in fact played no role is its creation), while only 28 percent correctly assigned that title to James Madison. Forty-three percent believed that a constitutional amendment requires presidential approval, slightly above the 42 percent who correctly said an amendment requires approval from three-fourths of the states.
There were a handful of bright spots, though. Eighty-four percent correctly said the right to an education is not a part of the First Amendment, and a solid 66 percent knew that habeas corpus protects against unlawful imprisonment.
The survey was released to coincide with Constitution Day, set to be commemorated Sept. 17. ACTA president Anne Neal argued in a statement that low constitutional literacy isn’t just embarrassing, but a threat to genuine democracy.
“The findings are deeply troubling and underscore how our educational institutions are utterly failing to prepare our next leaders for citizenship,” Neal said. “In a republic which depends on an educated citizenry, it’s crucial that all Americans — especially college graduates — are fully familiar with the rights and responsibilities set out in the Constitution.”
ACTA’s goal in releasing the survey is to encourage a strengthening of U.S. civics education at the college level. The organization claims in its press release that only 18 percent of U.S. colleges require students to take a class in U.S. history or government in order to graduate.