Constitutional Knowledge 

Federalism and the US Constitution

 

"Perhaps American constitutional law can help us rediscover the political principles we share in common and set the bounds of our disagreements. It's an odd thought in this dyspeptic era, but our conflicts may offer an opportunity to engage the citizenry in constitutional education. After all, polarized as we are, the one thing we share in common (if surveys are to be believed) is our ignorance of the Constitution." - George Thomas 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Introduction

In the United States, it is a truism that knowledge of federalism requires knowledge of the U.S. Constitution. But how well do Americans know their own Constitution? 

Despite maintaining a robust Constitutional (and arguably federal) culture, the U.S. Constitution is still a next-to-meaningless document to most Americans (Ahranjani 2020; Versteeg 2012). While citizen attitudes toward the U.S. Constitution remain positive and high, Americans score shockingly low in survey after survey of civic and Constitutional literacy. What might explain this seeming paradox  - of high Constitutional reverence yet low Constitutional knowledge? 

Common answers include: failure to promote civics in America's public high schools; new federal standards, like No Child Left Behind, which have changed the way knowledge acquisition are defined; or a lack of attention to critical thinking, and engaging students with reasons to care about their own political history and how that knowledge affects their daily lives.  

We find all of these answers compelling, but we take a slightly different approach in this space. To help answer why Americans' Constitutional knowledge is so low, we have to first recognize that Constitutional knowledge comes in many forms (see Dreisbach, 2016). Christopher Dreisbach, for example, has catalogued eight "levels" of Constitutional literacy, ranging from the basic ability to distinguish the U.S. Constitution from other documents (Level 1), to knowledge of the history and basic anatomy of the Constitution (Level 2), and all the way to a deep philosophical understanding of law, rights, and different philosophical conceptions of justice (Level 7; see pp. 17-42). 

This recognition (of the varieties of Constitutional knowing) produces challenges and opportunities. Taking it as a given that we can not adequately address all kinds of constitutional knowledge here, this dashboard focuses one one component of Constitutional Knowledge: Constitutional Structure. 

Federalism as Constitutional Structure

Why care about Constitutional Structure?

 

While there is more than one answer to this question, one key answer should be highlighted here. In short, Americans know very little about the structural protections of the U.S. Constitution. This problem was pointed out by Justice Kennedy in his joint dissent in NFIB v. Sebelius. As Kennedy pointed out, structural protections, like those imposed by federalism and separation of powers, are "less romantic" than other features of the U.S. Constitution. Federal structure, he noted, has a less "obvious connection to personal freedom than the provisions of the Bill of Rights or the Civil War Amendments." Therefore, Kennedy concluded, "they tend to be undervalued or even forgotten by our citizens."

 

This dashboard provides a starting point for understanding the extent to which Kennedy was right about federalism as a "forgotten" form of Constitutional Knowledge. It also offers a test of Kennedy's claim: Is federalism "undervalued and forgotten" in our schools, culture, and national consciousness?

The first graph below represents...The rest of the dashboard is divided in to 4 sections: 1) K-6; 2) High School; 3) College; 4) Public Knowledge. Click on the icons below to navigate between sections:

  • k-6
  • high school
  • college
  • publicknow
  • blackboard

K-6

High School 

College

Summary

Public Knowledge

Why this measure?

Constitutional Knowledge and Citizenship in K-12

Does an increase in Constitutional Knowledge lead to an increase in citizenship? 

In 2011, a group of authors published the first large-scale experimental test of this question. More than 1000 high school students in 59 classrooms were randomly assigned to an "enhanced civics curriculum," designed to promote awareness of constitutional rights and civil liberties. Their results, however, were mixed: while students' knowledge of the Constitution increased dramatically, the researchers found no empirical support for a change in the treatment group's support for civil liberties. 

The study raises a few important questions for supporters of Constitutional and civic literacy. First, on the most basic level, it raises the question of the relationship between knowledge and attitudes - is knowledge enough to change attitudes? Second, it raises questions about the effectiveness of teaching Constitutional content - is the focus on Constitutional content (Supreme Court cases, for example) adequate for inducing an attachment to Constitutional principles? Third, is the focus on liberties in the Bill of Rights too narrow - are we doing our students a disadvantage by focusing so much on civil liberties, and not enough on the history of constitutionalism, the reasons for the design of the US Constitution, and the structural of the federal government and the roles played by state and local government?   

Green, Donald P., Peter M. Aronow, Daniel E. Bergan, Pamela Greene, Celia Paris, and Beth I. Weinberger. "Does Knowledge of Constitutional Principles Increase Support for Civil Liberties? Results from a Randomized Field Experiment." The Journal of Politics 73, no. 2 (2011): 463-76. Accessed May 7, 2021. doi:10.1017/s0022381611000107.

Learn 

More

  • Daniel J. Elazar, Exploring Federealism 

  • Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan 

  • David B. Walker, The Rebirth of Federalism 

  • David Brian Robertson, Federalism and the Making of America