Student Knowledge of the U.S. Constitution

Student Knowledge of the U.S. Constitution

Lawrence C. Trostle

Trostle, Lawrence C. (Spring 2002). "Student Knowledge of the U.S. Constitution." Alaska Justice Forum 19(1): 2. Only 3 of 15 questions on the U.S. Constitution answered by a sample of University of Alaska Anchorage students were answered correctly by more than 70 percent of the respondents. These and other results indicate that the common claim "I know my constitutional rights!" is often inaccurate.

In We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas of the Constitution, Mortimer Adler, the noted 20th-century scholar, speculated regarding the body politic: "...how can we expect good government from them, or from the administrative officials whom they directly or indirectly choose to serve them, unless we think it is supremely important that they, the citizens both young and old, be educated for the discharge of their responsibilities."

Research I published in 1990 grappled with what I referred to as "constitutional complacency" among university students. Over the years, as a professor and as a former deputy sheriff, I have found that the statement most frequently misused by students and many others as well is "I know my (Constitutional) rights!" There is evidence that this is not the case.

The research project described below marks the second time I have surveyed university students on their knowledge of the basic principles contained in the U.S. Constitution. In the late 1980s when I was teaching in the university system of California, a frequent topic of discussion among faculty members in Justice, Government, and Political Science was the general lack of knowledge about the Constitution among our students. The celebration of the two-hundred year anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution had recently raised constitutional awareness. The group put together a list of questions addressing constitutional concepts that we agreed university students should know and administered it as a survey.

This spring, after reading about the limited participation in the UAA Madison Cup competition, I decided to look at the general level of student knowledge about the Constitution again. The Madison Cup is an annual competition sponsored by the Department of Political Science which centers on the Constitution. This year only two students competed.

The project described below does not exactly replicate the first survey, so the results are not completely comparable. With neither survey, however, was the level of basic knowledge exhibited by the students particularly high.

Methods

The 122 respondents to the survey were enrolled in several General Education courses at UAA during Spring 2002. Fifty-two of the students were male and 70 were females. Of the subjects reporting their age (n= 114), 70 were between 18 and 23 years old and 44 were 24 or older, with a range from 18 to 58 years. Forty-four of the sample were freshman, 33 were sophomores, 15 were juniors and 4 were seniors. Thirty-six were Justice majors and 82 had declared another major or had not yet chosen a major. Of the 102 subjects that answered the question "Have you ever read the U.S. Constitution?" 65 answered that they had and 37 reported that they had never read the document. (Please note that the number of respondents does not always equal 122. Not all respondents answered each question. The percentage scores reported are based on the number of subjects responding to the individual question.)

The questionnaire asked 15 true or false questions designed to assess general concepts and knowledge about the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights (Table 1.)

Results and Discussion

Each question was scored for a correct or incorrect response. The aggregate scores were computed for each question and subsequently converted into a percentage score. The percentage scores in Table 1 reflect the percent of subjects answering any given question correctly.

Over half the male respondents answered a total of 11 out of 15 questions correctly—a composite score of about 73 percent—and over half of the female respondents answered nine correctly—a composite 60 percent score.

Of the 15 questions, only three were answered correctly by more than 70 percent of the respondents.

It was felt that four of the questions (2, 4, 8 and 13) were so fundamental that all citizens would know the correct answers, but only questions 8 and 13 were answered correctly by more than half the respondents.

In general, the subjects scored better overall on the questions addressing the body of the Constitution than they did on the Bill of Rights questions.

Question 7 was arguably tricky. It is based on a direct quote from the U.S. Constitution, Article IV, Section IV, with the word "democratic" in the questionnaire substituted for the actual word used—"republican." Eighty (65%) respondents answered it incorrectly.

It is difficult to argue that the results of this limited study are encouraging for the body politic. The justice system in the U.S. is based on the Constitution, and an understanding of that document is fundamental to the operation of the system. It is a faculty responsibility to get these basic ideas across to our students. One also wishes that the Constitution was being stressed at the K-12 level. Somewhere the ball is being dropped, or it is precipitously slipping from our grasp. One other note of concern is that this questionnaire was administered to students during the last week of the Spring semester in general education Justice classes where the Constitution has been discussed. Would the results have been different if the test had been administered in the same classes but during the first week of a Fall semester?

Another observation by Adler in We Hold These Truths is worth considering:

[I]t is of utmost importance to persuade the citizens of the United States, both young and old, that they have misconceived their role in the political life of this country. If they can be persuaded to overcome this misconception, and come to view themselves in the right light, they will understand that their highest responsibility as citizens carries with it the obligation to understand the ideas and ideals of our constitutional government.

Lawrence Trostle is an associate professor with the Justice Center.