Editor's Note: This originally appeared here online from the AFA Journal.
Bart Simpson was unaware that the First Amendment did not protect public burping, and as a result, his rude behavior in class earned him the privilege of writing on the chalkboard over and over again, “The First Amendment does not cover burping.”
If only he had known his Constitution. The 10-year-old irreverent Bart has sown mischief, mayhem, and malice toward adults on Fox Network’s animated sitcom The Simpsons since its debut in 1989.
Sadly, Bart’s not the only one who is unfamiliar with one of our nation’s oldest and most important documents. Ironically, Americans are more familiar with the animated Simpson family than the document by which they are governed.
A survey by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum (now closed) found in 2006 that fewer than 1% of adults who responded to a national poll could identify all five rights protected by the First Amendment. Only 28% could name more than one.
Conversely, more than half (52%) of the respondents could name at least two characters in the Simpson television family, and 20% could name all five.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, “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.”
The survey cited above also revealed that many were extremely misled in regards to the First Amendment. For example, 38% believed that “taking the Fifth” was part of the First Amendment, 21% said the “right to own a pet” was listed someplace between “Congress shall make no law” and “redress of grievances,” and another 17% said that the First Amendment contained the “right to drive a car.”
Unfortunately, these numbers are not all that surprising. The Freedom Forum Institute, an education and outreach institute headquartered in Washington, D.C., has supported an annual survey of American knowledge and attitudes toward the First Amendment since 1997. The abysmal findings in the 2006 survey are consistent with what FFI has found over the past 21 years.
FFI’s more recent findings (May 2018) show that 36% of respondents could name one freedom, but only 3% could name four of the five freedoms. Only one respondent of the 1,009 polled could name all five correctly, and 40% of the participants could not name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment.
In 2017, the Annenberg Public Policy Center of University of Pennsylvania showed almost identical results as the McCormick poll regarding First Amendment literacy. On a similar track, Annenberg’s survey of 1,013 U.S. adults revealed that only 26% of respondents could name the three branches of government – executive, judicial, and legislative. While 27% could name just one branch, only 13% could name at least two, and 33% could not name a single branch.
Let it sink in:
- 40% of Americans couldn’t name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment.
- 33% of Americans couldn’t name a single branch of government.
- 20% of Americans can name all five of the infamous Homer Simpson family.
In short, Americans are constitutionally illiterate.
The Founding Fathers were convinced that the only real assurance that U.S. freedoms would survive is an educated citizenry. These wise men were almost prophetic in much of what they said. Consider a few of their insights:
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
– Thomas Jefferson
“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people…”
– John Adams
“A nation of well-informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins.”
– Benjamin Franklin
“A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
– James Madison
“Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… . They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”
– Thomas Jefferson
If what our Founding Fathers believed is true – that the preservation of our freedoms is predicated on an informed citizenry – the picture the surveys paint is rather bleak. Is there hope? Is anybody doing anything about it? Fortunately, a faithful few are.
One such entity is Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. A number of years ago, AFA discovered Hillsdale, a unique and highly respected small college that is pro-America, pro-family, pro-morality, and anti-big government. HC takes the latter stance so seriously that students there may not use any federal financial support or loans. Thus the college can ignore federal mandates that control other colleges.
Founded in 1844, Hillsdale’s mission is to pursue the goal of its founders “to furnish all persons who wish, irrespective of nation, color, or sex, a literary, scientific, [and] theological education.” “Hillsdale College maintains ‘by precept and example’ the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith.”
In an effort to create learning opportunities for citizens beyond the campus, Hillsdale offers many courses in a free online format, taught by the same faculty who teach on campus. The college reports more than 1,000 enrollments per day across all of the offered courses, and the most popular course – Constitution 101 – has more than 800,000 enrolled around the world.
Hillsdale believes, “A more perfect union requires a more serious discourse… [and that] an educated citizenry can be a powerful force for honoring, understanding, and defending America’s founding principles.”
Certainly, a great price has been paid to secure the freedom America enjoys today. What a shame it would be if the almost prophetic fears of the Founding Fathers came to fruition, and freedom was lost because of complacency and ignorance.
“You will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom,” John Adams, second U.S. president, said. “I hope you will make a good use of it.”
Hillsdale’s Free Resources
I took advantage of Hillsdale’s free online learning opportunity, and my understanding of our founding documents has been greatly enriched. It was particularly interesting to explore the Founding Fathers’ meaning and intent in their own words.
It is highly encouraging to revisit the truth that our Lord was central to the founding of this nation. The founders saw Him as Creator, Lawgiver, Protector, and Judge, and they understood that without Him, their endeavor would fail.
It is also intriguing to explore the seemingly paradoxical idea that those who felt freedom was worth dying for would so readily give their consent to be ruled by a government, which of course ultimately paved the way for our enduring representative form of government.
I also enjoyed discussions outlining numerous problems with, and the threat of big government and progressivism.
Learn more about Hillsdale College’s free online courses, visit hillsdale.edu or call 517-607-2738