by Patrick Kibbe, Associate, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and co-chair of the Constitution in the Classroom Committee for the ACS DC Lawyer Chapter.
This past Sunday, September 17, marked Constitution Day – a day to celebrate and commemorate the 230th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution was the first of its kind – a document enshrining the roles and limits of government, created and adopted by “We the people” of an independent nation. Its promise and the responsibilities it imposes on the people of this nation endure to this day.
But do we the people understand and appreciate the importance of the Constitution? According to a new study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the answer, unfortunately, is no.
In a survey of 1,013 adults, the study found that many lacked basic knowledge about our Constitution. For example, only about a quarter of those surveyed could name all three branches of government. More than a third could not name any of the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment; very few could name all five. And more than half said that undocumented immigrants do not have Constitutional rights. (They do). How are we the people supposed to protect our Constitutional freedoms if we don’t know what they are?
The Constitution in the Classroom program sponsored by the American Constitution Society is working to change that. Twice a year, in conjunction with Constitution Day in the fall and Law Day in the spring, lawyer and law student volunteers teach the basic structure and principles of the Constitution in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms across the country. Students learn the Constitution and its application to their lives by studying its text and seminal cases that involve students like themselves. For example, in lessons about the First Amendment, students read excerpts from Tinker v. Des Moines, a 1969 case that upheld the right for students to peaceably express their views about the Vietnam War in school, after several students were suspended for wearing black arm bands with peace signs imprinted on them.
Through the Constitution in the Classroom program, I have had the privilege of teaching Tinker and the First Amendment to 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders in DC public schools. By the end of the lessons, these students became the exception to the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s survey results and could name all five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment – the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government. More importantly, they understood them. For example, when I asked students what it meant to assemble, they told me about the Women’s March and other protests in DC. And when I asked why the right to petition the government was important, one student said that it was important in order to ask the government not to cut Medicaid, so his family wouldn’t lose health insurance. Another student said it was important to ask the government not to deport immigrants.
These students are the future of our country and the future stewards of our constitutional republic. And like the students in Tinker, they are beginning to take action. They understand better than many what is at stake. Collectively, we are falling short in our knowledge of the Constitution and our responsibility to live up to its promise. But I have seen firsthand that students are ready and willing to carry forward that promise so that our grand experiment in self-government can endure for decades more. Through programs like Constitution in the Classroom, it is imperative that we help prepare them to do so.