Watch CBS News

Most Americans don't know what's in the Constitution: "A crisis of civic education"

Importance of constitutional education
Most Americans could not pass a citizenship test, a major issue for the country 06:41

"We The People" have been talking a lot about our founding document—the United States' Constitution, a 233-year-old rule book for American life and governance that's especially relevant right now. 

The inauguration process is detailed in the 20th Amendment, the impeachment of a president is described in Article One, Sections Two and Three. And the 2020 election results were certified by the states, and counted by Congress, in accordance with Article Two and the 12th Amendment. But for all its wisdom, the Constitution has a problem: most Americans don't know what's in it.

Republicans and Democrats both say they're protecting the Constitution. President Trump referenced the Constitution no fewer than 16 times ahead of the Capitol riots this month, urging supporters to fight a supposedly unconstitutional election.

"We are living in unprecedented times," Jeffrey Rosen, CBS News constitutional law expert, told "CBS This Morning" co-host Tony Dokoupil.

The Constitution is a 7,500-word blueprint for America, establishing our national government, basic rights, and a process for addressing our problems — at least in theory.

"The Constitution provides as many questions and answers, and it provides a forum or a platform for civil dialogue and debate so we can peacefully resolve those questions," he said.

Rosen is also president of the National Constitution Center where web traffic is at an all-time high — which isn't exactly a good thing.

"What does it say about us as a country that, at this moment in time, so many of us had to go to the National Constitution Center to refresh our memory of the document that undergirds our country?" Dokoupil asked. 

"There's no doubt that we are in a crisis of civic education... The framers knew that the consequences of constitutional ignorance and being guided by passion rather than reason were armed mobs. Well, we just saw that they were right about that," Rosen replied.

The Constitution outlines that every immigrant to this country has to pass a civics test to become a naturalized citizen. You might assume Americans by birth might do at least as well as Americans by choice but that wasn't always the case. CBS News decided to use some basic questions from that very exam to ask people just how much they knew and get a sense of just how deep a crisis the country is in.

When asked how many people are in the House of Representatives, one woman guessed 12, another answered that she did not know. One man guessed 80 when asked the same question.

When asked to name the three branches of government, Nicole Devita did not know.

"Oh, my husband's gonna kill me," Devita laughed.

The vast majority of people were stumped when asked these questions, including Dominick Scarol who did not know Chief Justice John Roberts was the chief justice of the United States.

When asked what was the chief justice's name, Dean Gerard had a different answer.

"The chief justice? Trump," he replied.

During the questioning, fellow Americans passing by tried to help. But it was clear, most people could use a refresher.

"Who signs a bill into law? It's not officially a law until this person signs it," Dokoupil asked. Stumped Silvia Manhoa replied, "Is, what do you call his name again, oh boy."

These questions are all stuff Americans learned or should have learned a long time ago. But many people tend to forget this information and many Americans have not read the Constitution in years, if ever.

When asked if he never read it, Dominick Scarola responded: "I'm sure hardly anybody read it."

A 2019 survey by the non-profit Institute for Citizens & Scholars found only four out of 10 Americans could pass the citizenship test. Experts say that represents a larger problem.

"You could call it a scandal. I call it actually a proxy for a larger set of problems," said Raj Vinnakota, president of the institute, which aims "to reimagine and rebuild a field of civic learning" in order to reconnect America to its constitutional roots.  

"You need to understand how our government works in elections and so on. But you also need to understand why we set it up that way. And if you don't understand both of those pieces, you are going to be in trouble. And you can't actually function effectively in our society," Vinnakota said.

The lack of knowledge and understanding of the Constitution is something that has experts like Rosen concerned.

"What worries me the most about constitutional ignorance is the same worry that the framers had," he said. "That without constitutional education, the Republic will collapse."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.