Study Indicates Students Lack Knowledge of Constitutional Rights

By October 4, 2006

Last week, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute released its first scientific study, The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions. The first of its kind, this study attempted to determine “how much American colleges and universities—including some of our most elite schools—add to, or subtract from, their graduates’ understanding of America’s history and fundamental institutions” by asking the same questions of freshmen and seniors at the same institutions. Given the questions asked, seniors at a number of the fifty schools surveyed received a lower score on this test of American history and institutions than freshmen at those same schools.

FIRE’s primary interest in the study is students’ knowledge of the Constitution, specifically the Bill of Rights. From the enormous quantity of cases FIRE has taken, it is obvious that knowledge of First Amendment freedoms is not widespread among university administrators; apparently they may not be doing a very good job of imparting that knowledge to students either. The following two questions from the survey and their results are a telling indictment of the state of First Amendment education in American higher education.

The Bill of Rights explicitly prohibits:

                        a. Prayer in public school
                        b. Discrimination based on race, sex, and religion
                        c. The ownership of guns by private individuals
                        d. Establishing an official religion for the United States
                        e. The President from vetoing a line item in a spending
                             bill

Only 49% of seniors knew the answer was d, the establishment of an official state religion.

The idea that in America there should be a “wall of separation” between church and state appears in:
                        a. George Washington’s Farewell Address
                        b. The Mayflower Compact
                        c. The Constitution
                        d. The Declaration of Independence
                        e. Thomas Jefferson’s letters

Only 27.2% of seniors knew that the correct answer was e, a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists.

This ignorance of First Amendment protections underlines the importance of FIRE’s work in the Individual Rights Education Program, most importantly FIRE’s Guides to Student Rights on Campus (available for download). Specifically FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus and FIRE’s Guide to Religious Liberty on Campus will give students a general knowledge of the content and meaning of the First Amendment protections and partially remedy American universities’ collective failure to properly educate their students. If students remain ignorant of their rights, university administrators are able to run roughshod over their essential liberties with no repercussions, which renders FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program as important as ever.