It’s time Americans discover our Constitution all over again 

Suddenly the Constitution is newsworthy. The House of Representatives recently read it aloud for the first time ever. It’s been called obscure beyond understanding, termed a document of racist oppression, invoked by the Tea Party, and proposed as the basis for new legislation.

The Constitution hasn’t made such news since ratification or at least the Civil War. But what do Americans know about it? The answer is, sadly, not much.

One survey found that Americans believe overwhelmingly that the Constitution is important, but they demonstrate an alarming lack of knowledge of the document: Only about one out of three could identify the branches of the federal government, and just 6 percent knew all the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

These results are consistent with other surveys, including one commissioned in 2009 by the American Revolution Center (www.america revolutioncenter.org), which found that many more Americans remember that Michael Jackson sang “Beat It” than know the Bill of Rights is part of the Constitution.

But too many Americans are clueless about any part of their country’s history.

Over half of all 12-graders score below basic — you can’t do worse than that — according to the Department of Education’s National Report Card. Other surveys have found that 80 percent of seniors at leading colleges and universities flunked a basic American History test, and that college seniors often know less about American history than they did as freshman.

All this matters because if Americans have no understanding of the past — of the great charters of our liberty, of the men and women who risked all to obtain and then safeguard our freedoms, and of the people, places, and events that forged our collective memory — then they are like trees without roots.

Our citizens’ unawareness of their own history not only steals their past; it robs them of a compass to the future. If you don’t know where you’ve been, it’s hard to figure out where you need to go.

Americans unfamiliar with the creed of the Declaration of Independence or Constitution’s blueprint for our nation or the guarantee of their freedoms contained in the Bill of Rights can’t exercise their civic duties fully. To help reverse this situation our K-12 schools must improve the way they teach our history. American history teachers have too few minors and majors in history, often teach to poorly constructed state history standards, have fuzzy requirements for certification, and are compelled to use textbooks which make history dry and boring, which is no mean feat.

Our K-12 teachers and students deserve better.

But things don’t improve much in our colleges and universities where required courses in American history are rare because professors are submerged in jargon-strewn hyper-specialization. It’s no wonder that many of the best-selling books on American history are written by journalists who can tell entertaining and enthralling stories.

So, if we want the current debate about the Constitution and the revived interest in who we are as Americans to be consequential, we’ve got to stop shortchanging our students about their past. Then maybe this might be a real “teachable moment.”

Bruce Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is president and CEO of the American Revolution Center.

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Bruce Cole

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