Commentary: Our Constitution Is Essential for Our Identity

A new survey from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds that Americans cannot even agree on what it means to “be an American” anymore.  While there’s disagreement on what makes up the American identity, 7 in 10 people – regardless of political party – say the country is losing that identity. The survey results should not be surprising.

There were some points of definite agreement about what makes up the country’s identity. Among them are: the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution, a fair judicial system and rule of law, and the ability to get good jobs and achieve the American dream.

Many educators would likely point out that basic American civics is in rapid decline. In addition, our students have a poor understanding of the US Constitution. The Constitution of the United States has endured for over two centuries. It is the oldest written national constitution still in operation, and many of the nations that have established themselves in the decades since that day in 1787, have turned to this document as a model for their own constitutions.

William Gladstone described the U.S. Constitution as “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” Our constitution remains the focus of admiration for nearly all Americans and an object of appreciation by peoples around the world. The Constitution and the government it establishes “has a just claim to [our] confidence and respect,” George Washington wrote in his Farewell Address in 1796. Our founders clearly understood that tyranny can only be avoided if no one person or group comes to possess the power to make, enforce, and interpret the law. It is vital that we rediscover the importance of our Constitution, and pass it along to the next generation.

A better understanding of the Constitution is needed. That is why our organization, the Professional Educators of Tennessee, partnered with the Tennessee Star to encourage that effort.

Writer Peter Roff wrote:

“For all that, the level of constitutional literacy in America is nothing short of appalling, especially among the nation’s young people. Rights, as defined by the Constitution, are taught without respect to their accompanying responsibilities. Too many people do not understand the different branches of government, their purpose, or that the tensions between them were built into the system deliberately by the founders to better secure the rights of the people.”

That is why many state lawmakers, including Senator Janice Bowling and Representative Judd Matheny support legislation that requires Tennessee students to pass the United States civics test in order to graduate high school with a regular diploma, unless the test is determined inappropriate based on the student’s individualized education program. Understanding our government and founding documents, such as the Constitution, creates a more reflective, clear-thinking, and invested citizen.

The preservation of our liberties is an ongoing battle, something else our Founders plainly understood. Only American citizens can compel our government officials to obey their oaths to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. When we understand our rights and responsibilities as Americans, we can reclaim our identity as a nation, and perhaps be more united.

You can read a copy of three documents, known collectively as the Charters of Freedom, here. These works have secured the rights of the American people for more than two and a quarter centuries. They are considered instrumental to the founding and philosophy of the United States, including the Constitution of the United States.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter @jcbowman. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.


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