To become a United States citizen, hopefuls must pass a test that asks questions about the basics of the US Government. It’s assumed that most who were born in the United States would have extensive knowledge about these questions that include the Constitution, one study shows that might not be the case. The study was conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which enacted after President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban.
Those who enter the United States both legally and illegally have basic rights, that include equal protection by the 14th Amendment in the Constitution, which grants due process. The results of the study, however, didn’t think that was the case. More than 50 percent of Americans surveyed said they thought that illegal immigrants didn’t have any constitutional protections. That’s not the only amendment where Americans lacked knowledge according to the study, either.
The First Amendment of the Constitution says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Sadly, a whopping 37 percent of people surveyed couldn’t name one of the rights that the First Amendment guaranteed, with around half only being able to name freedom of speech. Under 20 percent were able to come up with freedom of religion and freedom of press, with just 10 percent knowing the right to assembly. Even fewer than five percent knew about the right to petition to government.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson of Annenberg said that “In light of the information in the news about First Amendment issues, the ignorance of the public about the First Amendment is startling. So there are times in which one needs knowledge about the Constitution to make sense of what’s happening in the news environment. In particular when rights are at issue it’s important that people understand what their rights are as they read the news.”
The study suggested that many American citizens weren’t able to accurately follow current events because of their lack of knowledge, and that it’s leading to more off-the-cuff responses to rhetoric and opinions instead of actual news issues. Religion, protected by the First Amendment, has been a hot issue in the news. It’s also another topic where some Americans are lacking needed knowledge.
All religions have the same rights as the Christian majority under the Constitution, with Muslims and atheists taking the brunt of most controversy. According to the survey, only 79 percent of participants said they thought that atheists had the same rights as others, and just 76 percent said the same about Muslims. Between 15 and 20 percent said that these two groups don’t have the same rights at all.
“Any percent answering incorrectly is problematic,” Jamieson said. She would add that “Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are. The fact that many don’t is worrisome. These results emphasize the need for high quality civics education in the schools and for press reporting that underscores the existence of constitutional protections.” Researchers added that even a basic lack of understanding in the political structure of the US was alarming.
One of the first things they teach in civics classes in the United States is that there are three branches of the government. The executive branch includes the President of the United States, while the legislative is made up of the US Senate and House of Representatives and the judicial branch includes the Supreme Court and other lower courts. It should be basic knowledge, but only around 25 percent of survey takers knew all three branches.
Even more surprising, more than 30 percent couldn’t identify even one branch of the government. 27 percent of participants could name one of the branches and 13 percent knew two of the three. Jamieson said that “What this survey shows is that we have not done the job that we collectively have to do as a nation in building a deep understanding of what the Constitution says and why it says it.”
She noted that an increase in civics education can’t totally change public knowledge, and more measures have to be put in place to make people more knowledgeable about how the government works. Currently, there are just nine states that require civics education, with Ohio and Virginia being the only two states that require you to pass a civics test to pass high school. Even in states where civics were required, one study showed that these states are focusing on multiple choice tests that only lean on memorizing information instead of teaching the nuances of government.