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Constitutional Knowledge 

How Well Do American Adults Know the Constitution? 

For most Americans, graduation from high school means the beginning of adult life. It also marks the end of any formal training in understanding the U.S. Constitution or American civic life. This means that as adults, our ability to participate in civic life is heavily influenced by the learning and development that occurs in the 13 years of public schooling. Unlike K-12 students, however, adults have no obligation to further study the Constitution, U.S. government, and the details of American civic life, meaning that for many, it is the ONLY training they ever receive. This dashboard highlights data taken from numerous sources examining the source and extent of American constitutional knowledge over the last 20 years.

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What Will They Learn?


A.P. Exams

State Civics Requirements



A Telling Contradiction

As a whole, Americans are generally confident that they know the Constitution well. When you consider that almost all American schools have requirements for U.S. history, government, or other civics-related in their curriculum, this confidence is based on relatively solid footing. Looking at the data taken from this segment of the American population, however, reveals a contradictory and concerning dynamic.

The first bit of data is a question asked in Knowing It By Heart, a publication of the National Constitution Center and the Public Agenda Foundation. Released in 2002, it asked "how much would you say you know about the Constitution and the rights and freedoms it spells out?"

Between those who felt they had a detailed knowledge of, and those who were generally familiar with their constitutional rights and protections, about 82% of Americans believe they know the Constitution fairly well. The distribution is also what we would expect, with a small number reporting a low level of knowledge, a comparably small number reporting a high level of knowledge, and the bulk of the survey population falling in the mid-range. Overall, not a bad finding.

The second telling bit of data comes from Marquette Law School's 2019 Supreme Court Survey. They ask, "Have you personally ever read the entire Constitution, either in school or on your own?"

This bit of data is more concerning. 57% of responding Americans indicate that they have never read the entire Constitution, even taking K-12 courses into consideration. The most concerning dynamic emerges when we consider these two points of data together. If almost 60% of Americans have NEVER read the entire U.S. Constitution, how can we realistically trust that the 82% of people who believe they know it, actually know it? Oddly enough, in their report on the survey, Marquette never references this bit of information, preferring instead to emphasize issues in the news.

It leaves us with the conclusion that while most Americans think they have a good understanding of the Constitution, most do not. The difficulty with this data is that it lacks detail. In order to draw adequate conclusions from it, we need more.

Form and Recency of Exposure

One of the first questions to answer as we contemplate the issue of American constitutional understanding is whether the causes come from when people were exposed to the information. Simply put, it is easy to forget something to which you exposed long ago if you have not refreshed or used that information in the intervening time. As of 2021, the average age of an American is just over 38 years old; now imagine how much you could forget if you had not thought about the constitution since you graduated from high school 20 years ago.

The other main aspect of this question is part of a decades-long debate over how you were exposed to constitutional information, and how effective those methods are. That is, was your learning part of a class dedicated to the subject, or were you learning on your own? If it was at home, how focused was your study, and what influenced the course of study? If it was part of a class, was it in high school or in college? Public or Private?

These are all questions we need answers to if we hope to gain a more accurate understanding of the predicament. The following graphs highlight survey data that attempts to provide clarity.

AP Exam

The next two graphs were taken from a 2015 set of data from Annenberg Public Policy Center. It asks whether survey respondents recall taking courses on the Constitution in either high school or college. As the data from K-12 indicates, the majority of Americans took and remember taking a course on the Constitution during high school. In college, the majority shifts to where the majority of Americans did NOT take a course dedicated to the Constitution. In both cases, the 'good' numbers (indicating greater exposure to constitutional content) are trending down.

One source that gives us some insight into college course offerings is this data from the American Counsel of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). The "What Will They Learn" report, conducted annually since 2009 examines to what extent US colleges and universities require seven basic subjects they consider essential to a liberal education. Among these subjects is a graduation requirement for US government or history courses that provide students "an understanding of American history and government ... indispensable for the formation of responsible citizens and for the preservation of free institutions."

Data from this source indicates that the percent of institutions who have substantial offering in U.S. History started low and have only gotten worse in the past 13 years. get the averages and values of overall grades.

Where does the data from this graph come from?

As these sets of data show, even though the vast majority of Americans report having had constitutional education at some point in their lives, for most it was a long time ago, and 2/3 of Americans have never read the entire document. Thus, how can we expect them to know or understand the Constitution on any meaningful level.

Levels of Constitutional Knowledge 

There are some core principles that provide the foundation for understanding the Constitution and the U.S. system of government.

There a different levels of constitutional understanding that one can acquire in understanding the U.S. Constitution and the system of governance it established. Basic understanding can be founded in a few simple principles that define the overall structure. These first graphs are taken from a variety of sources that examine how well Americans know the basics.

These first two graphs look at the extent to which Americans understand the principle of Separation of Powers and where it comes from. The first comes from the Survey of Civic Literacy, conducted in 2020 by the American Bar Association. It asks very simply, what IS separation of powers?

Of those surveyed, about 2/3 were able to correctly describe the separation of powers that is so fundamental to the structure of U.S. constitutional government. This compares well with the information from the National Constitution Center at the top of the page that indicates that about 2/3 of Americans report being generally familiar with the Constitution.

The next graph asks about federalism, the division of powers between the federal government and the lower governments of the states.

The numbers here are a little lower than for the more well know separation of powers, but still close to 60%. 

Finally, we have a survey from Annenberg, covering over 15 years of survey results, asking Americans if they are able to name the three branches of government created by the Constitution. 

This graph highlights one of the most often measured indicators of American levels of constitutional understanding over time, and highlights in interesting change dynamic. Prior to 2018, responses for to this question in various outlets consistently showed that around 1/3 of respondents were able to name all three of the branches of the federal government established by the Constitution, with the remaining 2/3 only able to name 2 or fewer. 

This changed radically after 2017, when those numbers began climbing every year until the 2020 data showed the number above 50% for the first time since the data began to be collected. While it is anecdotal, this corresponds with various other data points which, taken together, seem to indicate that the many vocal and public debates caused by the Trump administration have prompted more Americans than ever before to find out where the different powers of government are properly lodged.

Knowledge of Specific Provisions

·      What branch of government has the power to declare war? (2019)

·      According to the U.S. Constitution, which of the following is true? (Power to Raise Taxes)

·      How long are terms for members of Congress? (2012)

·      How long are terms for members of Congress? (2019)

·      What does the Constitution say shall be the supreme law of the land?

·      Why do some states have more Representatives in Congress than other states?

·      In the U.S. presidential election, the Electoral College ultimately selects the president. How are the votes in the Electoral College allocated among the 50 states and D.C.?

State Req'ts

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Public Schools and Public Opinion

Most Americans assume that the public education system is not doing a good job

Why do young Americans compare so poorly with other generations in terms of civic knowledge, engagement, and attitudes? For the last 100 years, greater numbers of U.S. high school students are taking civics and government courses. Yet, students are graduating with less civic preparedness and motivation to take part in civic life than any prior generation. Below is a graph representing American perception about the public school system in general. As the graph shows, a majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the public education system than are satisfied.

Outcomes – Knowledge, not habits or civic mindset

"About 3 in 10 Americans say they can recall their middle or high school making a very serious effort, and another 3 in 10  say a somewhat serious effort to teach the Constitution. That amounts to 60% of the nation, confirming the data from multiple sources which conclude that the amount of civics instruction in America isn’t the issue. Unfortunately, the scholarship has not yet ventured a cogent hypothesis of what is the issue."​ (NCC KBH)

Hole in the data

While it is a straightforward exercise in Googling to find out which states have requirements for civic education, it is a more significant undertaking to find out what is being taught in all these new and improved programs. This undertaking could be a significant contribution to the literature if we could examine the content of curricula, especially those created or modified in response to recent legislation.

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