The Bill of Rights went into effect back on December 15, 1791, and so that date is observed every year by folks in the know. How about you, though? Are you in the know? Can you define the Bill of Rights? If not, you have lots of company, as suggested in Newsweek’s “How Dumb Are We?”
The article highlights the results of a 20-year survey of 1,000 adult Americans, and what it tells us about our collective civics knowledge should set off alarm bells. Take, for example, that 29% of those folks were actually unable to name our vice president, plus 74% of them could not correctly say why the Cold War was fought. Then there’s the fact that 44% were unable to define the Bill of Rights. Would you fit right in with them?
Just as unsettling: Our kids seem to be in even worse civics shape, labelled a “crisis” by none other than former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor. You see, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, otherwise known as the nation’s report card, only about 25% of our fourth and twelfth graders and some 20% of our eighth graders scored at the proficient or advanced levels on the civics exam.
Such results make recognizing Bill of Rights Day all the more essential both at home and at school. As you’re hopefully aware, it’s the collective name for the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, but do you know who proposed it to Congress? Your choices: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or Benjamin Franklin.
Lots of folks answer that question with Thomas Jefferson, but they’re wrong. Credit actually goes to James Madison, but let’s not stop there. Here are several more Bill of Rights questions to tackle:
- Which Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents?
- Which Amendment protects against being a witness against yourself (the right against self-incrimination)?
- Which Amendment states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted?
- Which Amendment includes the right of defendants in criminal prosecutions to confront witnesses against them?
- Which Amendment discusses “the right of the people to keep and bear arms”?
- Who is the final arbiter of what the words in the Bill of Rights mean in legal controversies?
- Where is an original copy of the Bill of Rights on public display?
Answers follow at the end of this article. Meanwhile, though, be sure to share these questions with your older kids, too, and then work to bolster their civics knowledge—and yours, too. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s icivics is a good place to start. There are lots of other helpful sites, too, such as Ben’s Guide, primary resource documents, and the National Constitution Center.
Is it worth the effort? You bet! Says Tom Ewing of the non-profit ETS, “Lower voter participation among growing segments of the population is rising just as the United States faces challenges of historic proportions—including a struggling economy, budget deficits, a growing national debt, health care issues, an aging infrastructure, global terrorism, and a host of other problems.”
About that says Richard J. Coley, author of Fault Lines in Our Democracy: Civic Knowledge, Voting Behavior, and Civic Engagement, “Solutions will have to come from a well-educated, skilled, and creative workforce. For our democracy to function so that we meet these challenges, our nation must have better-educated citizens who understand how our democratic system works, believe in it, and participate by voting and volunteering.”
The time is now …
(Answers: a. 4; b. 5; c. 8; d. 6; e. 2; f. Supreme Court; g. National Archives in D.C.)