Forget What You Know; How Do You Feel?
Somebody does a survey like this every year, and every year, the news is very sad. On Sept. 15, the National Constitution Center released the results of a survey it commissioned of 1,000 adults revealing that one in two Americans don’t know there are 100 U.S. senators. Fewer than 20% got eight or more right when asked 10 very basic questions.
Here are those questions, the answers, and the percentage of people who answered correctly:
Q.) When was the Constitution written? A.) 1787. Nineteen percent knew it. Let’s be charitable and assume most were thinking of the Declaration of Independence here. Doesn’t charity feel great?
Q.) Where was the Constitution written? A.) Philadelphia. Sixty-one percent got it right. Possibly they saw the movie on TV.
Q.) What are the first 10 amendments to the Constitution called? A.) The Bill of Rights. Sixty-six percent answered correctly. A sizable percentage of Americans apparently believes the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are called: “One Through 10.”
Q.) Do you recall what the introduction to the Constitution is called? A.) The Preamble; 55% were right. Don Fowler couldn’t recall.
Q.) How many branches of the federal government are there? A.) Three; 58% got it. Obviously, many Americans are confusing their government with their bank.
Q.) How many senators are there in the U.S. Congress? A.) 100. Only 48% answered correctly. (William Weld, it is reported, said he thought there should be 99.)
Q.) How many years are there in a senator’s term? A.) Six years. Forty-three percent knew this. Many from Massachusetts expressed shock when informed that Senate terms do, in fact, expire.
Q.) How many voting members are there in the House of Representatives? A.) 435. Twenty-three percent were right. It’s true; we do have a bunch of delegates who show up and raise hell but can’t vote, thank goodness.
Q.) How long is a congressman’s term? A.) Two years; 45% knew this. Let’s be forgiving here. Oprah hasn’t mentioned the subject since Phil retired.
Q.) Who nominates justices to the Supreme Court? A.) The president. Seventy percent answered correctly. The Constitution does not, of course, apply if the president nominates a black conservative.
All in all, fewer than 1 in 5 could answer even eight of these 10 questions correctly. The chairman of the center, Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, says the results show the public has an “appalling lack of knowledge.”
But I have learned that the problem is not with the public; the problem is with the questions. We should not measure what people know or don’t know. Since when has that mattered?
I have devised a better constitutional quiz, suited for these times in which we live: a test with no wrong answers. If you want an accurate measure of American attitudes about the Constitution, these are the questions you should ask:
1) When the Constitution was written, were enough women and minorities included in the process?
2) The Constitution was written in Philadelphia. Were air pollution standards tough enough at the time?
3) Do you feel that the Bill of Rights showed enough compassion for the underprivileged and the poor?
4) Do you care what the introduction to the Constitution is called?
5) Are there enough branches in the federal government?
6) How many senators do you feel there should be?
7) Do senators care about people like you as much as Princess Diana did?
8) Should the House of Representatives be required to look like America, in terms of ethnic diversity?
9) Does your congressman really care about you, and about what you’re going through?
10) Does the Supreme Court have too many men on it?
If the National Constitution Center had gone this route, it would have gotten a much more representative cross section of sentiment in this country.
You see, my friends, this is what is missing here. The survey asked for hard and fast factual answers. Archaic questions about the Constitution don’t have anything to do with modern problems. They have nothing to do with the real challenges that people face today, like how to get rid of the evil and seductive Joe Camel. Besides, that’s not how you measure learning anymore. You measure learning by how people are made to feel about things. After all, in this era, it is not what people know, but what they feel that counts.