September 17 is Constitution Day in the United States of America. This day should give us all reason to revel in the relative security and predictability of our daily lives, especially when compared to the lawlessness and brutality that characterize life other areas of the world.
Unfortunately, however, this day will be marked by few beyond some dedicated lawyers and government types and understood as significant by even fewer. Perhaps because I see most things through the lens of my work here, I can’t help but think our civility problem may be linked to the fact that Constitution Day will pass this year, once again, with little if any recognition or appreciation.
The U.S. Constitution is the oldest written Constitution in the world. It is also the world’s shortest. It establishes a flexible structure for governing our nation, establishing the relationship between states and federal government and among the three branches of government. The Constitution establishes the “rule of law” applicable to all of us, regardless of our race, religion, or economic condition.
At the close of the four month long Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787, a woman is said to have approached the eldest delegate, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, outside of Independence Hall. She asked whether the framers had created a monarchy or a republic. Franklin told her that America would be “a republic, if you can keep it.”
This anecdote, along with the explanation that an educated and engaged citizenry is essential to keeping our republic, was recounted in a recent report “Guardian of Democracy, the Civic Mission of our Schools.” The report, generated by a consortium of organizations under the umbrella of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, updates the 2003 study “Civic Mission of Schools,” and persuasively sets forth the importance of civics education. Where authority is vested with the people, the people need to exercise the understanding, critical judgment and authority to make our government appropriately responsive. Yet, this report and other research shows:
- Only one-third of Americans could name all three branches of government; one-third couldn’t name any.
- Just over a third thought that it was the intention of the Founding Fathers to have each branch hold a lot of power, but the president has the final say.
- Just under half of Americans (47%) knew that a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court carries the same legal weight as a 9-0 ruling.
- Almost a third mistakenly believed that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling could be appealed.
- When the Supreme Court divides 5-4, roughly one in four (23%) believed the decision was referred to Congress for resolution; 16% thought it needed to be sent back to the lower courts.
This stunning lack of understanding of our government undermines the quality of our life in a profound way. It permeates the way we as citizens interact with each other, including with our government representatives.
Unlike in other nations, peoples from diverse cultural, religious and racial backgrounds can fully join the American community by sharing its defining values. The ideals expressed in the Constitution transcend fidelity to a motherland, a royal family or a national religion. An essential and defining value of our country is a shared commitment to the free expression of many ideas.
Without understanding the importance of accommodating diverse viewpoints, however, we become fragmented and turn on one another. Our public discourse has become polarized and uncivil in part because we Americans, diverse in every way, are lacking in civic learning that provides a basic education about the facts and values of our government that are foundational to civil discourse and constructive public dialogue. The Constitution, and the values it espouses, are the glue holding our wondrously diverse nation together in a respectful, civil way of life. We, the people, need to become more engaged and to demand better of our elected representatives.
I vividly recall my Civics class in 9th grade. That class was the first of many high school courses that fueled my interest in becoming a lawyer. Although we can’t necessarily draw a direct causal connection, I note that civics education has been declining in our country as incivility and disengagement from the political process has increased.
Lawyers should take the lead in turning this trend around. Here are some ideas that may help:
- Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said “The better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be to preserve the system of government we have…Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do.” Check out the resources on the iCivics website of the non-profit organization started by Justice O’Connor to reinvigorate civic learning.
- Read the report of the Illinois Task Force on Civic Education which makes recommendations that Illinois adopt a standalone Civics requirement and strengthen social studies standards. Public hearings on this issue will be scheduled throughout the state of Illinois this fall. Attend one and let your voice be heard.
- Visit the website, including a daily blog, of the National Constitution Center. For our readers in the Philadelphia area, entry to this great museum is free on Constitution Day.
- Join and become active in an organization devoted to promoting public understanding of the law and its role in society. A few you may consider: the American Bar Association Division for Public Education, the Illinois State Bar Association Committee on Law Related Education for the Public, the National Conference on Citizenship, the organizations collaborating as the Civics Renewal Network including the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and the Constitutional Rights Foundation.
As pointed out so aptly in the Guardian of Democracy report, “In a representative democracy, government is only as good as the citizens who elect its leaders, demand action on pressing issues, hold public officials accountable and take action to help solve problems in their communities.” We need to stop allowing gridlock and incivility to be the hallmarks of our government. And education is the first step.
Thomas Jefferson’s warning of over two centuries ago is still applicable: “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Drafting the Constitution was difficult and draining work for 42 delegates over the spring and summer of 1787. The signing by 39 of those delegates (three refused) on September 17, 1987 was the beginning. Ratification, further dialogue and amendments followed, again as the result of hard work and civil engagement by people who cared to craft a government by the people for the people. We have the obligation to continue the process.