When Did You, or Your Child, Last Read the Constitution?


This post begins with the same question that I asked about the Declaration of Independence: When was the last time that you read the Constitution of the United States? I have to admit that the Constitution is not as invigorating a read as the Declaration of Independence. It does not inspire action as did Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” It is definitely not as entertaining as a recount of one Patrick Henry’s fiery speeches before the Virginia House of Burgesses. Many adults have not read the Constitution since graduating from high school. That is, if they were ever required to read the document in its entirety. If that thought is troubling, consider what our children know, or what little our schools even venture to teach, about our most important Founding Document.

The US Department of Education has a page on its website dedicated to celebrating the day on which the Constitution was signed. However, they have renamed “Constitution Day” to “Constitution and Citizenship Day.” The webpage reminds visitors that Each educational institution that receives Federal funds for a fiscal year is required to hold an educational program about the U.S. Constitution for its students.” What must be included in “an educational program” is unspecified. However, there is plentiful evidence that little is taught students about the specific powers allotted to each branch of the Federal Government in the Constitution, the rights it guarantees to citizens, or the historical context in which it was created.  

In 2010, only 27% of fourth graders who were tested using the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress could identify the Constitution as “The document that contains the basic rules used to run the United States Government.” The NAEP Questions Tool on the National Center for Education Statistics’ website offered 441 sample questions used in the 2010 nationwide assessment. A search of the sample questions using the keyword “Constitution” revealed only seven questions for all three grades that were tested. Two of the questions pertained to the Constitutional Convention. Two others pertained to the Anti-Federalists’ impact on the Constitution. Two more questions actually focused on Sojourner Truth’s view of the Constitution. There was only one sample question listed for 4th, 8th, or 12th grade assessments that was described as identifying the purpose of the Constitution. There may, of course, have been questions related to specific functions of government set forth in the Constitution, but sample questions surely denote which topics are considered to be significant by those who constructed the tests. Were the students ever asked to identify the Preamble or a specific section within the document as emanating from the Constitution? The answer to that question was not evident on the website or other material I found concerning the assessment.

While little emphasis seems to have been given to the Constitution on the 2010 NAEP national assessment, it is worth reviewing your state’s content standards regarding the Constitution. In California, for example, one 5th grade standard requires students to “Understand how the Constitution is designed to secure our liberty by both empowering and limiting central government and compare the powers granted to citizens, Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court with those reserved to the states.” An 8th grade standard requires students to: “Enumerate the powers of government set forth in the Constitution and the fundamental liberties ensured by the Bill of Rights.”  A 12th grade standard requires students to: “Analyze the ideological origins of the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers’ philosophy of divinely bestowed unalienable natural rights, the debates on the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, and the addition of the Bill of Rights.” While these standards exist, they are three amongst hundreds of others that are listed in the “History-Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools” bulletin. Just how many of those educators even attempt to cover in the time that is devoted to the entire subject of “social studies” each week in a public school classroom, , which is often less than one hour each week, is unknown. I have been told in the past that the time spent covering any particular standard is directly related to how many questions are related to it on the state’s standardized test. Even those aspiring high school students who take advanced placement tests may receive less education about the Constitution than you might imagine. I was surprised to find that AP US History Exam allocates only 20 percent of its questions to the period ending in 1789 (as noted on the College Board website). The AP US Government and Politics Exam generally focuses only 5 to 15% of the test on Constitutional underpinnings of our government. The same percentage, I might add, which is devoted to civil rights and liberties.

Will implementation of the Common Core Standards result in a more thorough knowledge of the Constitution for those being educated in our schools? Will students come to grasp why each specific section was included by the Founders? Might students be able to discuss why the Constitution was ratified only with the assurance that the Bill of Rights would be set into place immediately after the Congress began to function? Hardly. As I reviewed the Common Core standards, I learned that documents such as the Constitution are considered to be “Informational Texts.” There are two English Language Arts standards for grades 11 and 12 that specifically mention the Constitution:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.8 Delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning (e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents) and the premises, purposes, and arguments in works of public advocacy (e.g., The Federalist, presidential addresses).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.9 Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.”

There was no requirement for students of any grade to actually read the Constitution. There was no standard related to the theoretical underpinnings of the Constitution, a standard related to concepts such as natural rights, or any suggestion that students develop a contextual understanding of the time period during which the Constitution was created. The Common Core Standards focus on developing skill sets such as determining meaning, locating key words, understanding the presentation of information, distinguishing between facts and opinions, and analyzing relationships. There are no standards per se requiring that the Constitution must, in fact, be studied. The Constitution is treated as nothing more than a set of instructions which can be used as a teaching tool. In my mind, this translates to a further disregard to teaching future generations the meaning of our Founding Documents and the individual liberties which the Constitution was intended to secure.

If the public schools place so little emphasis on knowledge of the Constitution, why should you spend your time reading it at all? Why should you require your children to understand the Constitution, as well as all of the important issues, decisions, and events that surround it?

  1. The Constitution is the blue print set forth by the Founders for the operation of our Federal Government. Each time that you read the words “shall” or “shall not,” a precise power that was or was not given to each branch will crystalize in your mind. A review of the Madison’s notes made during the Constitutional Convention reveal the painstaking consideration that those present gave to each point that was ultimately included in the document. You will not understand how specific the instructions are for the operation of each of the branches unless you read the Constitution.
  2. The Constitution, as originally set forth by the Founders, creates a system with a centralized but limited federal government. However, you will not understand how limited the powers of the Federal Government were intended to be unless you read the Constitution. When I read the Constitution in 2010, it was the first time I had done so in decades. As I review the news of the day from that point forward, I have often found myself saying, “But they can’t do that!”
  3. The Founders created a system with a balanced structure of power between the branches. Each branch has begun to behave in ways which upset that original balance of power. If you read the Constitution, you will immediately begin to observe that each branch of our Federal Government no longer acts in the manner envisioned by the Founders.
  4. Changes that have been made to our Constitution have changed the structure, scope, and power given to Federal Government. Again, this is not readily apparent unless you read the Constitution in its original form, and then digest the changes that have been made to it. I would encourage you to read the copy of the Constitution that is located on the National Archives’ website (http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html). You will notice immediately what changes have been made to the original document. You can then read about changes in the government’s structure and function as caused by amendments such as the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments.
  5. Statements, or rather interpretations, are routinely made about the Constitution by teachers, judges, elected officials, bureaucrats, and those in the media. You will not be able to grasp the misrepresentations, inaccuracies, and historical misconceptions that are being made unless you have read the document for yourself.

Reviewing the Constitution, beginning to educate yourself about the rich history that surrounds this document, and understanding the time period in which it was created, will be an eye opening experience for you and your children.

The Constitution is often dismissed or distorted by those who wish to destroy it. It is said to be a document created by men with intense character flaws, which condones abhorrent practices such as slavery, and whose applicability has long since passed.  However, the document that was created during the Constitutional Convention formed a government that has endured more than two hundred years through times of great internal and external adversity. It initiated a country in which individuals can live without fear of a tyrannical government, they can achieve whatever goal they set for themselves, and they can unite together with others in the common identity of being “American.” As Franklin said, “For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats.”

On this two hundred and twenty-sixth anniversary of the signing of our Constitution, I remain hopeful. I believe in our ability to educate ourselves and our children about this important document, the system that was set in place by our Framers, and the exceptional nation which arose because of the experiences and intentions of those who came before us. The Founders, in their wisdom, gave us the means to correct the problems we face today. Whether it is through a convention of the states or mobilizing like-minded voters, we can effectuate the changes we seek.

Please take a moment today to be thankful for the existence of our most exceptional Founding Document: The Constitution of the United States of America. Read the Constitution, read it with your children, and have a discussion with them about the original structure of our government that was set in place for us by our Founding Fathers. Pass this post along to others in hopes that it will motivate them to read the document themselves and to their children as well. Finally, please educate me as to what type of materials I can create to better help you and your children become immersed in the history of our founding and deepen your understanding of our Founding Documents. I believe in the power that is held by “We the People.” Joining together to restore the Blessings of Liberty as envisioned by those colonists who came together to create our great nation is What IS Right With America!


Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.