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Who could pass up this recent survey finding: Americans know more about The Simpsons than they do about the First Amendment. Newspapers in this country-and around the globe-had a field day. In fact, the findings, based on a survey conducted by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum in Chicago, aren’t new-or news. Other studies have come to identical conclusions. Too few Americans-particularly young people-understand our Constitution and the civil rights and liberties that we as lawyers take for granted. Several years back, a National Constitution Center survey put it similarly: More youths could name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government. These surveys say a lot about what is being taught (or not taught) in our nation’s schools. They also say a lot about how the legal profession has failed in one of its prime responsibilities-educating Americans about the most important document in U.S. history and the government and legal system it created. No longer a curriculum staple It wasn’t too long ago that every school child was expected to memorize the soaring opening lines of the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union . . . .” (Can you remember the rest?) Today most eighth graders learn about the founding fathers and that’s about it. Fewer and fewer high school and college students grapple with the history of the Constitution, its language or meaning. At a time when constitutional issues-from privacy to presidential power, gun control to Guant�namo Bay-confront this nation daily, understanding the Constitution should be the hallmark of citizenship, not its forgotten tradition. In recent times, there has been much talk-and debate-over the precise intent of the Constitution, and how the courts and legislative bodies should interpret its language. Whether advocates believe in “original intent” or “the living, breathing Constitution,” whether they think the legislatures, not the courts, should make the law, they invariably cite the Constitution as their authority. Yet how many Americans actually go back, read the words contained there, study how the courts have interpreted that language and make up their own minds about who is right? Not nearly enough. Last year, the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, in cooperation with Justice Learning, an online civic education and awareness project at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, decided to make the U.S. Constitution more accessible to Americans, especially students. We published a hip-pocket guide, The United States Constitution: What it Says, What it Means, tailored to fit anywhere-the back of a pair of jeans, for instance. With an introduction by Caroline Kennedy and an afterword by David Eisenhower, the book offers the text of the founding fathers accompanied by plain-language context and history. Within a few months, more than 100,000 copies of our little guide were circulating. Colleges and universities handed them out on Constitution Day, now a federally mandated educational program. WNYC, New York’s largest public radio station, offered the book as a premium to contributors. Booksellers prominently displayed the red, white and blue volume beside their cash registers as an impulse purchase. But I believe we can do much better. Just think . . . . Open the nightstand drawer in just about any of the nation’s 4.5 million hotel and motel rooms and you’ll find a Gideon Bible and a phone book. What if another-equally essential-volume, the Constitution, was accorded a similar place of importance and access? What if every high school in America gave entering freshmen their own copy of the Constitution on their first day of classes? Or how about handing out copies when immigrants become citizens, when average Americans report to jury duty or when 18-year-olds first exercise their rights under the 26th Amendment? The benefits of education surely outweigh the cost of ignorance. Every day, lawyers zealously defend the legal rights of our clients in courtrooms across the nation. If only we took up the cause of constitutional literacy with half as much zeal, Americans might actually understand and support constitutional freedoms. Who knows, once more Americans get acquainted with the Constitution, its elegant language and its far-reaching ramifications, perhaps they’ll come to expect it readily at hand, just like a Bible or a phone directory. Kathryn Kolbert, an attorney, is a senior research administrator at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She co-authored The United States Constitution: What it Says, What it Means: A hip pocket guide (Oxford University Press 2005).

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