David Adler: Cost of civic illiteracy is high for the republic

September 17, 2013 

The celebration — and cerebration — of Constitution Day in schools and universities across the United States invites renewed attention to the importance of civic education in the life of the nation. From Boston to Boise to Berkeley, teachers and students will be asking why civics matter.

The essentials of civic education, idealized in the promotion of civic literacy, focus on the acquisition of knowledge about the Constitution, the fundamentals of how our government works, pivotal moments in our history and the rights, opportunities and duties of citizenship. At bottom, it promotes civic engagement in a civil manner.

Citizens who lack a firm grounding in the foundations of our constitutional system — its origins, practices and evolution — face stiff challenges in their efforts to critique the wisdom and legality of governmental actions, introduce insightful and effective reforms and, above all, to seek governmental accountability to the people and the Constitution.

When recent surveys reveal that only one-third of Americans can name the three branches of government, we are justified in wondering about the future of self-governance in America.

Our constitutional system, as the founders made clear, is a system of values embraced by our citizenry, as reflected in both the ratification of the proposed Constitution 225 years ago, and in subsequent amendments adopted across two centuries.

Our system reflects fundamental choices made by the people on such defining issues as the allocation of powers, the processes and procedures governing decision-making by elected officials and the declaration of rights and liberties. A lack of basic constitutional knowledge about those attributes and dimensions of our system deprives citizens of the opportunity to effectively participate in public debates about the assertions of unconstitutional actions.

The Preamble to the Constitution provides, among other purposes of government, the duty to form a “more perfect Union.” This purpose, alone, invites citizens and governmental officials alike to think, not only about good policies and effective governance, but also to think about the Constitution. What provisions in the supreme law of the land remain viable in our time? Which ought to be amended?

Citizen participation in such debates represents the foundation stone of our republic. In defense of the proposed Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers, a key series of essays promoting the virtues and values of the Constitution, wrote in Federalist No. 1 that the United States faced a question of historic importance, not only for America, but for the entire world.

He asked whether it is possible for people to govern themselves through reasoned discussion and debate, or whether people must forever suffer the imposition of government upon them, often through force. That was no mean question, for at that juncture in world history, there were many doubters. The historical record did not provide many grounds for confidence that government, as Abraham Lincoln would describe nearly a century later, “of the people, by the people and for the people” was a goal that could be achieved.

America’s Founders were not sure that their experiment in self-government would be successful. Today, the outcome of the experiment remains in doubt. Surely, its success hinges on an educated citizenry, schooled in the essentials of civic literacy.

We are wise to recall on this day, the words of Benjamin Franklin, who when asked by a woman what kind of government delegates to the Constitutional Convention had given the nation, replied: “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

That great challenge to Americans of every generation, remains our greatest challenge. Failure, as they say, is not an option.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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