ERIC Identifier: ED285801
Publication Date: 1987-05-00
Author: Patrick, John J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
Education on the U.S. Constitution. ERIC Digest No. 39.
The United States of America, a comparatively young country, has the
world's oldest written constitution. In 1787, this Constitution was a striking
innovation, a breakthrough in the establishment of republican self-government.
Since 1787, this Constitution has been the preeminent symbol of American
nationhood and a practical instrument of free government (popular government
limited by law to protect the liberty and security of individuals). Furthermore,
this Constitution has had an enormous influence on governments around the world.
According to Albert Blaustein, a specialist in the comparative study of
constitutions, "The United States Constitution is this nations's most important
export" (1984, p. 14).
The bicentennial of the Consitution provides a special opportunity for
renewal and improvement of education on basic values and principles of American
constitutional government, which are essential elements of national unity and
cohesion in a pluralistic society. These ideas are relevant and valuable to all
Americans, regardless of their social differences, and must be understood and
used by all who would exercise fully their rights and responsibilities of
citizenship. What is the status of education on the Constitution in American
secondary schools? This ERIC digest examines (1) treatment of the Constitution
in the curriculum of secondary schools, (2) public opinion and knowledge about
the Constitution, and (3) guidelines for improvement of education on the
HOW IS THE CONSTITUTION TREATED IN THE CURRICULUM OF SECONDARY SCHOOLS?
State government mandates, public expectations, and educational traditions
indicate the secure place of constitutional studies in the curriculum.
Throughout the United States, students study the Constitution through required
courses in American history, government, and civics. Most Americans are exposed
to formal education on the Constitution at least three times in secondary
school: (1) in a junior high-middle school American history course, (2) in a
high school American history course, and (3) in a high school American
government or civics course.
Although it is established in the secondary school curriculum, education on
the Constitution has suffered from neglect and routine treatment. Assessments of
curriculum guides indicate lengthy lists of concepts and topics about American
constitutional government. However, there also are long lists of other goals
pertaining to a broad range of concerns from environmental issues and global
perspectives to social change and futuristic studies. The educational agenda is
cluttered, and priorities often are unclear. In many schools, goals for study of
the Consitution may be viewed as no more important than a vast array of
competing purposes of education in the social studies.
Studies of standard secondary school textbooks have revealed restricted
coverage and shallow treatment of basic principles, values, and issues of
constitutional government. During the 1960s and 1970s, coverage of social
history expanded at the expense of political history (including constitutional
It seems that study of the Constitution has all too often been overshadowed
by trendy topics and curriculum fads. There is an underemphasis on the
Constitution relative to other topics of lesser importance in citizenship
education. In a recent study of the Constitution in American culture, historian
Michael Kammen concludes: "The Constitution is too often neglected or poorly
taught in American schools" (1986, p. 24).
WHAT DO ASSESSMENTS OF THE PUBLIC'S KNOWLEDGE AND ATTITUDES REVEAL ABOUT THE
CONSEQUENCES OF NEGLECTING EDUCATION ON THE CONSTITUTION?
Various studies over the years have indicated that Americans tend to have
great pride in their Constitution, but this veneration is not coupled with ample
knowledge and deep understanding. Too many Americans are insufficiently educated
about their Constitution.
A recent nationwide survey found that many Americans appear to be deficient
in both knowledge and appreciation of fundamental values, principles, and issues
of their constitutional government (Hearst Report, 1987). For example, about
half of the respondents believed that the President can suspend the Constitution
in the event of war or national emergency. Sixty percent said that the
President, acting alone, can appoint a member of the Supreme Court. Fifty-seven
percent thought that local schools can require children to pledge allegiance to
the flag. Only 50 percent knew that a Supreme Court decision can be overruled.
Nearly half revealed ignorance of both American government and the ideas of Karl
Marx when they said that the following statement is part of the Constitution:
"From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."
Various studies of American youth during the past thirty years corroborate
the conclusions of the recent Hearst survey (NAEP, 1983; Patrick and others,
1986). In addition, they have revealed that many students have a flawed
understanding and appreciation of certain core values of free government, such
as guaranteeing freedom of expression and political participation under law to
all--even to very unpopular or despised individuals or groups (Elam, 1984).
Furthermore, Americans tend to be insufficiently informed about perennial issues
generated by paradoxes of their Constitution: (1) how to have a powerful
government that is also strictly limited by law; (2) how to have government by
the people that also prohibits majorities from oppressing individuals or
minorities; (3) how to have both separation and sharing of powers among three
branches of government; (4) how to have a supreme national government without
violating certain rights and powers reserved to the state governments; (5) how
to maintain national security while also protecting certain rights of
individuals, including dissenters.
HOW CAN EDUCATION ON THE CONSTITUTION BE IMPROVED?
Assessments of the secondary school curriculum and the public's knowledge and
attitudes suggest the need to renew and improve education on the Constitution.
The following guidelines might be used to help to meet this need:
--Assign high priority to goals of education on the Constitution. --Expand
coverage of the Constitution in standard courses such as American history,
government, and civics. --Blend social history with political history--including
constitutional history--so that there is a balance between these two domains of
content in standard American history courses. --Emphasize the applicability of
the Constitution to the common concerns of citizens--the rights and
responsibilities of citizenship. --Integrate knowledge of principles and values
of the Constitution with facts about the structure and operations of government
in the past and present; students need to know both major concepts and
information that pertains to these ideas. --Examine major issues of the past and
present that are associated with paradoxes of American constitutional
government, such as majority rule with protection of minority rights. --Obtain
high quality learning materials on the Constitution that can be used readily to
complement standard textbooks.
By following the guidelines in the preceding list, Americans may revitalize
and enhance education on the Constitution during the bicentennial period and
beyond it. By so doing, we may sustain the values and institutions of free
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Blaustein, Albert P. "The United States Constitution: A Model in
Nation-Building." NATIONAL FORUM 54 (1984): 14-17, 38.
Burroughs, Wynell G., and Jean West Mueller. USING DOCUMENTS TO TEACH THE
CONSTITUTION. ED 273 547.
Elam, Stanley M. "Anti-democratic Attitudes of High School Students in the
Orwell Year." PHI DELTA KAPPAN 65 (1984): 327-332.
Hearst Report. THE AMERICAN PUBLIC'S KNOWLEDGE OF THE U.S. CONSTITUTION: A
NATIONAL SURVEY OF PUBLIC AWARENESS AND PERSONAL OPINION. New York: The Hearst
Corporation, 1987. ED 289 812.
Kammen, Michael. A MACHINE THAT WOULD GO OF ITSELF: THE CONSTITUTION IN
AMERICAN CULTURE. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.
National Assessment of Educational Progress. CITIZENSHIP AND SOCIAL STUDIES
ACHIEVEMENT OF YOUNG AMERICANS: 1981-82 PERFORMANCE AND CHANGES BETWEEN 1976 AND
1982. REPORT 13-CS-01. Denver: Education Commission of the States, 1983. ED 236
Patrick, John J., Richard C. Remy, and Mary Jane Turner. EDUCATION ON THE
CONSTITUTION IN SECONDARY SCHOOLS. Bloomington, IN: Social Studies Development
Center and ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education, 1986.
ED 278 598.
Patrick, John J. and Richard C. Remy. LESSONS ON THE CONSTITUTION.
Washington, DC: Project '87 of the American Historical Association and American
Political Science Association, l985. ED 258 891.
Patrick, John J., and Richard C. Remy. "Development of Lessons on the
Constitution." THE SOCIAL STUDIES 76 (1985): 9-12.
Schechter, Stephen L., ed. TEACHING ABOUT AMERICAN FEDERAL DEMOCRACY.
Philadelphia: Center for Study of Federalism at Temple University/1984, ED 248