By MOLLY SELVIN
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Americans have become constitutional dunces. Or neo-totalitarians. It's hard to say which. Ignorance and oppression tend to go hand in hand.
For instance: A new million-dollar survey by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation found that almost one- third of high school students, upon hearing the actual text of the First Amendment, thinks it goes "too far." Wonder why so many high school administrators have so few qualms about squashing campus newspapers' free speech?
Another recent survey found that two out of three Americans believe that Karl Marx's blueprint for communism -- "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" -- is part of this nation's defining document. And in yet another survey, six out of 10 Americans failed to name all three branches of government and fewer than one in 10 could name all four rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
At one local high school last year, a U.S. history teacher announced that the class was going to skip over the Constitution, telling the students they were supposed to have learned that stuff in fifth grade. With that, the class zoomed from George Washington's triumph at Yorktown to the first shots fired at Fort Sumter.
But it's not just kids who are ignorant. Most adults probably haven't read the Constitution since grade school, and even then the teacher no doubt ripped through the separation of powers while threading the next filmstrip into the projector. Little wonder the text seems like a relic from a fusty age when he-men wore satin knee breeches. Little wonder that cable TV's talking heads have muscled into this vacuum, asserting special knowledge as to the Constitution's meaning.
'Soul of the nation'
Last year, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., slipped into law a requirement that schools teach the Constitution every Sept. 17. Future voters, he argued, need to become better acquainted with the document he calls "the soul of the nation." So parents are steeling themselves for those inevitable late nights of building foam-board dioramas, complete with construction-paper amendments with edges charred to look old.
The genius of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and the 37 other signers who quarreled throughout that stifling Philadelphia summer of 1787 is that they knew they didn't have all the answers. They framed the United States' foundational document with sturdy posts and beams "to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, and promote the general Welfare." But they left it to us to hammer up the drywall and choose the wallpaper. Each of us is now James Madison and Alexander Hamilton -- not just free to fine-tune the Constitution's meaning for our times, but responsible for doing so.
Madison and Hamilton didn't know the Internet was coming and didn't mention eBay in their debates over the 10th Amendment or the commerce clause. But they did know big changes would come. Do terror suspects, including U.S. citizens, deserve a trial? What should guarantees of being informed of "the nature and cause of the accusation" mean after 9/11? Robert Novak or James Carville would probably be only too happy to give us their interpretation of the Sixth Amendment on this matter. The nation would be better served if we read those sections ourselves.