ABA President Zack: Renew Your Commitment to the Constitution
One of the defining events in our nation’s history happened in September 223 years ago — the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia signed the U.S. Constitution, a written charter for a new, and enduring, federal government.
Recent studies have shown, however, that when it comes to our Constitution, there is a need for greater understanding and education. According to a 2009 nationwide study commissioned by the non-partisan American Revolution Center, while more than three-quarters of Americans — 77 percent — knew that the Constitution begins with the words, “We the People…,” only a little more than half —57 percent — knew that the Bill of Rights is part of the Constitution.
Further distressing news about our civic knowledge was revealed when retired U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice David Souter addressed the American Bar Association at a meeting. He said, “We know from survey results that about two-thirds of the people in the United States cannot even name all three branches of the national government.”
My commitment to the Constitution and to civic education is rooted in my childhood. I lived in Cuba when Fidel Castro came to power. In 1961, when I was a young teen, my family and I fled to the United States. My experience in Cuba taught me that a constitution is just words on a page unless people understand what those words mean and what their obligations are under that constitution.
As with many other immigrants who have become U.S. citizens, I have a special appreciation for American constitutional democracy and government under law. It is an appreciation that comes from experiencing, firsthand, the absence and breakdown of constitutional and democratic values.
As Americans, we must have a better understanding and appreciation of our Constitution. We must rededicate ourselves to learning about our constitutional system and of the fundamental principles and values upon which it is based. These include the separation of powers, checks and balances, judicial review, the rule of law and constitutional democracy.
The American Bar Association is committed to fostering a deeper understanding of the Constitution, this month, and every day of the year. For more than 35 years the association has advocated support for law-related citizen education. The ABA’s Public Education Division continues to provide accessible programs, curriculum and resources for lawyers, teachers, students and laypeople alike. This year, the association expanded its commitment to civic education by creating a Commission on Civic Education in the Schools.
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — who will serve as a special advisor to this commission — succinctly sums up the need for civic education:
“This knowledge about how we function in a democracy is not handed down through the gene pool. We have to teach it.”
The goal of the commission is to improve Americans’ civic understanding. A new ABA Academy for Civics and Law will create an eight-hour course for young people ages 13-19 to be conducted next spring in sites throughout the nation. The academy will feature a civic education curriculum that engages participants in challenging and interactive learning experiences.
It is time for us to renew our understanding of the Constitution and the role of our government. We must value the skill of civil discourse and deliberation. We must insist on being informed citizens who know how to make our system of government and laws work. We must return to discussing civics and our constitutional rights wherever we are — in our schools, at our work places and at the dining room table.
We urge you to make your own commitment to the document that is the cornerstone of our democratic society.