September 16, 1997 in Nation/World

Delicate Constitution Americans Are Surprisingly Ignorant Of A Document They Hold In High Regard

Steve Goldstein Knight-Ridder
 

Responding to a citizenship test question asking for the year the U.S. Constitution was signed, a 35-year-old Vietnamese immigrant named Chau Chu confidently wrote “1787,” only to receive the exam back with the answer marked “incorrect.”

Chau, of course, had the date right.

Based on the results of a new poll, Chau - who became a naturalized citizen in May - probably knows far more about the Constitution than both the person correcting the exam and a majority of Americans.

The poll, released Monday by the National Constitution Center, showed that while Americans have an abiding reverence for the 210-year-old document, they are resoundingly ignorant about many of its provisions.

More than half of the 1,000 Americans polled did not know that there are 100 U.S. senators. Only 6 percent could name all four rights guaranteed by the First Amendment and almost one-quarter could not name one of those rights.

Slightly more than one-third believed that the Constitution mandates English as the official language, and one out of six thought the Constitution establishes America as a Christian nation. Additionally, 84 percent of respondents said the Constitution states that “all men are created equal,” confusing that document with the Declaration of Independence.

Only one of every five respondents knew that there are 27 amendments to the Constitution.

Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, the chairman of the National Constitution Center, called the results “truly startling” and said that Americans have an “appalling” lack of knowledge about the Constitution.

“Most Americans would flunk the citizenship exam,” Rendell said during a news conference in Washington at the start of Constitution Week, Sept. 17-23.

The good news, the mayor said, is that the poll showed that 91 percent of Americans believe the Constitution is important to them, while 84 percent believe that for the Constitution to be effective Americans must be active and informed citizens.

Yet both the respect for the Constitution and the dearth of knowledge about its contents may be welcome results for the National Constitution Center, a not-for-profit, nonpartisan educational institution.

The Philadelphia-based center, established by Congress in 1988, is about to launch a fund-raising drive for a $123 million museum to be built on Independence Mall. With many planned interactive exhibits, the museum will be devoted to telling the story of the creation of the Constitution and explaining its relevance to contemporary life.

Judith Rodin, president of the University of Pennsylvania, the center’s academic partner, said that knowledge of the Constitution will “inform the public debate” over regulation of the Internet and other speech and access issues.

To personalize the human impact of the Constitution, center officials presented Chau - now a student at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., and a driver for Nabisco - and three other individuals whose lives have been affected by the Constitution.

Nailah Rogers, 17, student body president at Philadelphia’s Central High School, called the document “the written conscience of the United States.”

Wayne Barefoot, a manufacturing company executive from Easton, Pa., who immigrated from Canada in 1982, said he “would never again take my basic rights for granted” after losing the right to vote until he became an American citizen in 1991.

Finally, Col. Henry Stedman of Gulf Breeze, Fla., was chosen to ride the Marine Corps’ Freedom Train 50 years ago as it traveled across the country with the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and other “documents of freedom.”

“It was the most memorable time of my life,” Stedman said of the 13-month journey. “Most people would never have had the opportunity to see these documents unless we came to them.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

TEST YOUR CONSTITUTIONAL KNOWLEDGE

Ten basic questions about the Constitution:

1. When was the Constitution written?

2. Where was the Constitution written?

3. What are the first 10 amendments to the Constitution called?

4. Do you recall what the introduction of the Constitution is called?

5. How many branches of the federal government are there?

6. How many senators are there in the U.S. Congress?

7. How many years are there in a Senate term?

8. How many voting members are there in the House of Representatives?

9. How many years are there in a representative’s term?

10. Who nominates the justices of the Supreme Court?

Answers (and percentage of correct responses): 1. 1787 (19 percent); 2. Philadelphia (61 percent); 3. the Bill of Rights (66 percent); 4. the Preamble (55 percent); 5. three (58 percent); 6. 100 (48 percent); 7. six years (43 percent); 8. 435 (23 percent); 9. two years (45 percent); 10. the president (70 percent).

Source: National Constitution Center

This sidebar appeared with the story: TEST YOUR CONSTITUTIONAL KNOWLEDGE Ten basic questions about the Constitution: 1. When was the Constitution written? 2. Where was the Constitution written? 3. What are the first 10 amendments to the Constitution called? 4. Do you recall what the introduction of the Constitution is called? 5. How many branches of the federal government are there? 6. How many senators are there in the U.S. Congress? 7. How many years are there in a Senate term? 8. How many voting members are there in the House of Representatives? 9. How many years are there in a representative’s term? 10. Who nominates the justices of the Supreme Court?

Answers (and percentage of correct responses): 1. 1787 (19 percent); 2. Philadelphia (61 percent); 3. the Bill of Rights (66 percent); 4. the Preamble (55 percent); 5. three (58 percent); 6. 100 (48 percent); 7. six years (43 percent); 8. 435 (23 percent); 9. two years (45 percent); 10. the president (70 percent). Source: National Constitution Center


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