Our collective ignorance could be our undoing.

Okay, so maybe most of us don’t know that, when, in 1935 and ’36, the Supreme Court found against certain parts of Roosevelt’s New Deal, he responded by threatening to appoint additional Supreme Court justices who shared his views.

Surely, though, we all know how many times the word democracy appears in the Constitution, right?

Well, not the folks I talked with yesterday anyway. They gave me all sorts of numbers, with the lowest being four times and going all the way up to 19. And that’s an uh-oh, since democracy never appears in the Constitution.

As for when it was signed, most said it was July 4, 1776—but they were wrong again. Meanwhile, it appears that we again as a nation paid little attention to Constitution Day–September 17. (The year, by the way, was 1787; did you know?)

And our collective ignorance was borne out by a Harris Interactive survey of 1002 18+ adults:

  • 55% correctly identified the three branches of government.
  • 48% correctly identified the meaning of “separation of powers.”
  • 48% correctly identified the role of the judiciary in the federal government.

That result was underscored when Newsweek asked 1000 native-born Americans to take the official citizenship test. Here’s what happened:

  • 29% couldn’t name our vice-president.
  • 73% couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War.
  • 44% were unable to define the Bill of Rights.
  • 6% couldn’t circle Independence Day on a calendar.

And if that’s not enough to set off alarm bells, an Annenberg survey found that:

  • Just 38% of respondents could name all three branches of the U.S. government.
  • Only 15% knew that John Roberts is chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, but 27% knew that Randy Jackson is a judge on American Idol.
  • 55% thought the Constitution was signed in 1776.

No wonder, then, that retired 8th grader social studies teacher J. Graham remarked, “I know many adults who know nothing about the Constitution and the federal government, so they don’t even know their own rights.”

The picture is no rosier when it comes to our kids. For instance, on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, only 2% of 4th graders, 1% of 8th graders, and 4% of 12th graders scored in the “advanced” range.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of all the test-takers scored below the proficiency level. More specifically: 73% of 4th graders, 78% of 8th graders, and 76% of 12th graders were, therefore, deficient when it comes to civics and the workings of our government.

One reason: Until the 1960’s, high schoolers took three years of civics. Nowadays, they may take just one semester—if that.

Says Stephen Zack, president of the American Bar Association: “This lack of knowledge is unacceptable, especially because it’s a solvable problem. Currently, fewer than half of all states test students on their knowledge of civics or government. Civics need to be counted as another basic, like reading and mathematics. …”

Unfortunately, says Washington state legislators’ 2013 Civic Educator of the Year Web Hutchings: “Civic proponents’ wishes have fallen on deaf ears. Through promotion of the Common Core State Standards, the Obama administration and its allies orchestrated one of the most dramatic assertions of federal power into K-12 education since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, but failed to promote civics where it counts—in the common core’s package of standards and assessments. These documents determine what will be taught to more than 40 million children across the United States. Because the core is barren of civics—the word does not appear in the 66-page standards document for English/language arts—the imperatives of the ‘not tested, not taught’ mindset will diminish time for citizenship education as it did under the No Child Left Behind Act.”

And so all the more reason to be grateful for retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor whose mission now is improving this unfortunate state of affairs. As she reminds us, “Ultimately, schools are the guardians of democracy. Improved civics learning can address many of our democratic shortfalls.”

That’s why, back in 2009, she founded iCivics which boasts a “national leadership team of state supreme court justices, secretaries of state, educational leaders, and a network of committed volunteers” all working together to pass along “our legacy of democracy to the next generation.”

The site offers such games as “Do I Have a Right,” “Power Play,” and “Executive Command,” and covers such topics as the separation of powers, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the three branches of government, even budgeting issues. To date, iCivics has produced 18 educational video games and continues to provide dynamic, standards-aligned teaching materials that are in use across the county.

Visit other noteworthy civics/government-related sites with your child, too. After all, it’s not just up to our schools and such civics education advocates as Justice O’Connor, but the rest of us, too. Plus, living in the Philadelphia area gives us countless opportunities to educate our children in American history, the Constitution, and the workings of government. For instance:

  • National Constitution Center
    525 Arch Street
    Philadelphia, PA 19106
  • Independence Hall
    520 Chestnut Street
    Philadelphia, PA 19106
  • The Liberty Bell
    526 Market Street
    Philadelphia, PA 19106
  • Christ Church & Christ Church Burial Ground
    2nd Street above Market Street
    Philadelphia, Pa 19106
  • Betsy Ross House
    239 Arch Street
    Philadelphia, PA 19106
  • Valley Forge National Historical Park
    1400 North Outer Line Drive
    King of Prussia, PA 19406

Needless to say, countless books about civics, history, and government line bookstore shelves for both kids and adults, so, along with touring, get reading, too.

And in the meantime, here are some quotes to get you pondering, reacting, and commenting, starting with this recent one from Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg recommending that Egypt look at South Africa’s constitution as a model for human rights: “I would not look to the U.S. Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012.”

  • “What we are facing in America and the world today is not a crisis in education but a crisis in faith and respect for democracy, which rests on having respect for the judgments of ordinary people.” ~ Deborah Meier, founder, Mission Hill K-8 School
  • “We send kids to school not just to become employees and entrepreneurs but citizens capable of wise and effective self-government in our democracy. This public dimension of schooling was a founding principle of American education. We have all but forgotten it in the current era of education overhaul.” ~ Robert Pondiscio, Executive Director, Citizenship First
  • “We face difficult challenges at home and abroad. Meanwhile, divisive rhetoric and a culture of sound bites threaten to drown out rational dialogue and debate. We cannot afford to continue to neglect the preparation of future generations for active and informed citizenship.” ~ Sandra Day O’Connor, retired Supreme Court justice & iCivics founder
  • “If you ask the average person what they think is going on with civics education, they’ll say, ‘They don’t teach this anymore the way they did when I was a kid.’ And they’re right, but the major difference is not a lack of knowledge about such facts as the branches of government, but the decline of applied skills, such as being able to understand the news and form one’s own opinion about the news, and being able to affect one’s community in a productive way.” ~ Peter Levine, research director, Tufts University’s Jonathon M. Tisch College of Citizenship & Public Service
  • “Americans don’t have anything in common other than a theory of government. The only thing that really makes us Americans is this devotion to our ideals as a nation. And if you don’t understand what people like John Stuart Mill and John Locke were writing about liberty—if you have no idea of the underpinning of our form of government—how can you have discussions today about how free speech principles should apply to the Internet.” ~ Sheila Kennedy, professor, Indiana University-Purdue University
  • “Principals are actually coming out and saying to teachers: ‘You won’t teach social studies; you really only focus on math and language arts.’ What happened in 2010 is that teachers got tired of making the case for social studies. They just threw up their hands and said, ‘Fine, we won’t bother.’ … In my work, I see [other nations] are all interested in our schools because we can teach critical thinking. But now, like the Chinese and Japanese, we’re teaching our kids how to take tests.” ~ Chris McGrew, Office of International Program Services, Indiana State University.
  • “Young people spend an average of 40 hours a week in front of a screen. One or two hours a week would do to teach them civics.” ~ Sandra Day O’Connor, retired Supreme Court justice & iCivics founder
  • “The secret to America’s success is the strength of our civil society. An informed citizenry lays the foundation for not just democracy but also for an innovative, dynamic economy.” ~ Sandra Day O’Connor, retired Supreme Court justice & iCivics founder
  • “The devaluation of social studies as a core subject in the K-12 curriculum has troubling economic, political, and social implications. For one, social studies at all grade levels encourages students to develop skills in critical thinking—one of the top traits employers look for in a candidate. It also requires students become strong written and oral communicators who know how to structure and articulate their opinions. …” ~ Jen Kalaidis, journalist