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The Scary Consequences of Our Mindless Indifference to the History of the Constitution

America’s greatest strength and greatest weakness are the same thing. We are not burdened by a sense of history, our own or anyone else’s. Our detachment from history has liberated us to focus forward. We look to the future in a way that many other societies envy.

But this same quality can also disconnect us from an understanding of our society and our government. To America, this can be particularly threatening. Every nation has a set of political values and principles. But ours are, by comparison, more vital to us, as Americans, than a similar set of values would be to the people of many other nations.

Ours is not a country "defined by blood, clan, land origin or religious belief," Ray Suarez once observed. We are what we have done. Or, as Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard framed it, "more than any other leading democracy, America is a country that preserves its unity through a shared belief in its Constitution, its institutions of government, and its democratic principles."

So it is particularly important that we pay attention to our Constitution, institutions and democratic principles.

But over the last thirty years just the opposite has been happening. Our sense of our own past, to put it politely, is thin and growing thinner. The evidence for this is all around us.

A report conducted this year by Intercollegiate Studies Institute finds that high school graduates cannot pass a basic civics test. The average grade was 50%. Four years of college do not make the matter much better in most cases, the report found. "The average college senior knows astoundingly little about America’s history, government, international relations and market economy, earning an 'F' on the American civic literacy exam with a score of 54.2%," said the report.

Perhaps the most disturbing fact about this report is how unsurprising it is. From the 1960’s onward civic education has been declining and by the 1980’s had nearly vanished. "It is striking how little energy is devoted to trying to engage citizens more actively in the affairs of government," Derek Bok wrote in 2001, "Civic education in the public schools has been almost totally eclipsed by a preoccupation with preparing the workforce of a global economy. Most universities no longer treat the preparation of citizens as an explicit goal of their curriculum."

No one who cares can claim they did not see this coming. Various surveys have demonstrated this decline. One in 1976 "found that civic competence diminished markedly from 1969 to 1976." Another in 1988 found that civic knowledge had continued declining since 1976 and another in 2002 found "that the nation's citizenry is woefully under-educated about the fundamentals of our American Democracy."

But many Americans don’t seem to care. Civic Literacy is one of those "do-good" subjects often dismissed by supposedly more hard-nosed or more pragmatic people. This is a mistake. Our political system is functioning less well than it could, less well than Americans say they would like it to, because of a drift away from an understanding of, let alone a commitment to, the democratic principles embodied in the Constitution. Those principles have guided the country for 220 years, the longest run of democracy in human history. But now most high school students can’t even identify the principles or answer questions about the system built on them. Indeed, many Americans of all ages can’t identify them. "People revere the Constitution but know so little about it," the Senate’s great institutional voice, Robert Byrd, said two years ago, "and that goes for some of my fellow Senators." If even some of our leaders know little about our basic principles and institutions (even as they work in them) how can we expect the system to work well?

The framers elevated process over result. This is one of the striking distinctions between their Constitutional system and the various "isms" of left and right that have fallen while democracies have prospered by mobilizing human spirit and capital. The communists, the fascists the national socialists all put first the goal of a new, and in their view, better society. Government’s purpose was to enact that society on behalf of the people. The end was more important than the means. In Madison’s democracy the citizens would decide in common what that better life entailed. Government’s role, under the Constitution, was to channel society’s conflicts and struggles into a field of battle with rules that protected the liberties of individuals and encouraged compromise. The most venerated artifact in all of American history is, remarkably, a document laying out governmental process, a Roberts Rules of Order for the new Age of Democracy, "this Constitution for the United States of America."

But to maintain a commitment to process above product requires an understanding of the larger principles—why the framers built the system they built to allow democracy in a large and growing country.

What all these reports on the decline of civic education are really, frighteningly, recording is the slow drift away from our bond to the Constitution and its principles.

It is not that American’s do not accept the Constitution, indeed they love it. But as Senator Byrd says they no longer have any idea of its contents or its context. For them government has become a place to seek a product and they grow angry at government when it does not deliver (as it often cannot during periods of polarization such as now). "Americans have expectations for politics and the political process that are often unrealistic," said Bok. "Convinced that presidents can often accomplish more than is humanly possible, that legislators should be able to arrive at sensible decisions without prolonged disagreement or controversy, and that politicians should refrain from pandering to the voters yet still reflect the views of their constituents, the public seems fated to endure repeated disappointment over the government and those who run it."

In our recent book, we call attention to this drift away from an understanding of our Constitutional system and to encourage Americans to reverse it—not just because it would be a nice thing to do but because we see solid evidence our system will work better if we do.

In his farewell speech in 1989 Ronald Reagan wondered if the country was "doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?" Teaching history shouldn’t be cut to the latest fashion, said Reagan. "If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. Let’s start with some basics; more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual."

Reagan concluded with a warning that seems prescient in our dispirited moment. "I am warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit."

American memory is at the heart of something we call our Constitutional Conscience. The Constitution was one of the most brilliantly creative political documents ever written. Most Americans these days think of it as a listing of rights. But the Bill of Rights, of course, was a political afterthought to assure ratification. The heart of the Constitution was a set of political principles and a design for government to execute them. Those political principles -- things like compromise, tolerance of difference, respect for process, and openness to debate -- are things Americans say we want now as an antidote to our brittle and uncompromising modern politics. But since Americans are not learning their history they do not seem to realize the principles they long for are in their own founding document.

Civic illiteracy erodes our American unity. It is our commitment to and understanding of the Constitution that makes us Americans, as much as anything else.

Without knowledge of our Constitution and its context we are losing the thread that makes us Americans. Professor Michael Sandel described this a decade ago when he perceived "a growing danger that individually and collectively we will find ourselves slipping into a fragmented, storyless condition." In this condition, "there is no continuity between presents and past, and therefore no responsibility and therefore no possibility for acting together to govern ourselves."

For most of our history we built on the Constitution, internalizing its principles in what historian Michael Kammen calls Constitutionalism. That sense of the Constitution and its principles is what we mean by our Constitutional conscience. It is, as Senator Lowell Weicker said soon after Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, "what holds us all together." Without it, our country becomes different, less appealing. Reagan worried about this as he left office. We worry about it now. It is why those failing grades on that civic literacy quiz are more than an academic matter.