One of the greatest opportunities for philanthropy over the coming decade is to strengthen public knowledge and appreciation of the core principles of our Constitution.
Our Constitutional structure is especially important in this age of hyper-polarization, with sharp divisions and even hatred among the people. Checks and balances, the separation of powers, federalism, and other Constitutional safeguards prevent one group of Americans from amassing total power and oppressing the rest. The Bill of Rights protects the freedom of individuals and private organizations to dissent and protects minorities from the tyranny of the majority.
For 230 years, this structure has given more people more freedom and more opportunity than any other political system in the history of the world. The Civil War Amendments corrected the terrible injustice of slavery and provided for equal protection under the rule of law. The Nineteenth Amendment guarantees women the right to vote. And when there is continuing injustice, as there was with racial segregation and discrimination, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution provide a vision and framework for peaceful reform.
But can liberty long survive if the American people no longer understand and appreciate our core documents?
Our country is in a civic literacy crisis. Survey after survey shows how little Americans know about the basic principles of our political tradition.
Fully 33 percent of Americans cannot name a single one of the three branches of government, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Only 26 percent could name all three branches in 2017.
Only one fourth of Americans can name even one of the five First Amendment freedoms (speech, press, religion, assembly, petition of government). A similar study by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum showed, however, that more than half could name at least two of the five Simpsons. And this Constitutional ignorance has been accompanied by an erosion of the norms that make democracy possible. According to the Knight-Gallup poll of free expression on campus, 37 percent of college students think it is sometimes appropriate to shout down a speaker you disagree with.
There are multiple reasons for the decline in Constitutional literacy. In the past generation high-school civics education has focused less on civic knowledge than on civic engagement—volunteering, protesting, getting involved in community problem-solving. These are all crucially important for democratic life but no substitute for basic understanding of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The study of American political history has virtually disappeared from most colleges and universities. And when our founding documents are taught, it is frequently from the perspective that they are instruments of oppression and economic injustice.
A growing number of philanthropists are taking the lead in addressing this crisis. Their support includes:
- Innovations in curriculum, such as the new electronic Advanced Placement U.S. History textbook created by the Bill of Rights Institute with support from the Daniels Fund and the Charles Koch Foundation. The Hewlett, MacArthur, and McCormick Foundations and the Carnegie Corporation are among the funders of iCivics, which uses interactive online games to engage students in Constitutional education.
- High-quality debate about our core documents. The John Templeton Foundation funded the National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution, where scholars from the conservative Federalist Society and the progressive American Constitution Society analyze where they agree and disagree in their interpretation of every Constitutional clause.
- High-level seminars for high-school history, civics, and social-studies teachers, for instance through the Gilder-Lehrman Institute and the Ashbrook Center.
- Landmark sites that make American history and founding principles come alive. George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Madison’s Montpelier, and Colonial Williamsburg are all privately owned and sustained by philanthropy.
- Initiatives to strengthen state civics standards. Thanks to the Joe Foss Institute, 33 states now require as a condition of graduation that high-school students pass the history and civics exam immigrants must pass to become citizens.
- Public display of documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the Magna Carta, made possible by donations from David Rubenstein. He says: “People who are more informed about our country and our citizenry are going to be better citizens, and if we have better citizens, more informed citizens, we might have a better democracy.”
Under the direction of my colleague Adam Kissel, The Philanthropy Roundtable is building a network of funders who seek to expand giving to successful civic-education initiatives and, where there are gaps, to launch new ones. Please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more information.