Three in four Americans in an Associated Press poll said they believe the U.S. Constitution is an enduring document that has relevance. If you believe the Constitution is the reason for the freedom and prosperity in America then that is good news. I do believe that.
Yet most Americans are pretty ignorant of the contents of the Constitution. For example, Newsweek last year gave 1,000 Americans the U.S. Citizenship test and found most of them lacking knowledge of history and how things are supposed to work in this country. In fact, nearly 40 percent flunked and wouldn’t have been allowed to become a citizen if they were among the thousands of immigrants applying for citizenship.
• 61 percent didn’t know the length of a U.S. Senator’s term (six years).
• 63 percent couldn’t say how many justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court (nine).
• 6 percent didn’t know the annual date for Independence Day (July 4).
• 70 percent couldn’t describe what the Constitution is (the supreme law of the land).
• Most didn’t know the name of the vice president (Joe Biden).
• Few knew that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights.
• 86 percent didn’t know the number of members of the U.S. House of Representatives (435).
An ABC news poll asked people at the Washington Monument last year in Washington, D.C., to recite the opening phrase of the Constitution (“We the people of the United States …”). Most couldn’t.
Should those results make us worry that Americans are ill-equipped to preserve our freedoms? Maybe.
But I worry a lot less about it after attending the American Legion’s 75th High School Oratorical Scholarship Program in Indianapolis in April. Winners from all 50 states and Puerto Rico were there as well as a winner from among students in Europe with military families based there.
Here is the headline: They know the Constitution. And they are passionate about it.
I was privileged to be one of six judges of the final round of this nationwide contest. Two of the judges were Harvard law graduates. One of those two was a nationally-recognized constitutional law expert. But as impressive as those two judges were, the three finalists were even more impressive.
They knew their stuff. They knew how to tell a story. They gave speeches that would compare favorably to the best politicians that you have heard. They would have been formidable on the podium during the recent GOP presidential debates.
These three finalists were judged the best of the best among more than 50 kids who were beyond smart, beyond confident, beyond great orators. They were patriots.
Sitting in that auditorium gave confidence that great leaders are coming up from our youth. And they won’t forget where we all came from and how we got here. They will defend our country’s citizens against its own government in state houses and in Washington, D.C., as well as against outside forces.
And they all took home a bunch of scholarship money. The winner — Rebecca Frazer of Morgantown, Ind. — received $18,000 (plus scholarship money won at district and state levels of the competition). Check out her oratory skills on legion.org as well as the other two finalists — Charles Baines of Idaho and John Donaldson of Minnesota (who won a $16,000 scholarship and a $14,000 scholarship, respectively).
Arizona was well represented at the national contest by Rachel Moses of Cave Creek. She won the state contest. She is a home-schooled junior.
In total, Rachel received $4,000 in scholarship money from the American Legion program. But she actually received a lot more. Due to the high stakes and intense competition at the state and national level, she obtained an incredible education about our history and the living Constitutional document in her months of preparation for this contest.
“It was such a great experience,” Moses said in an interview. “It was a lot of work but was really worth it.”
She said one of the best parts was meeting “like-minded people” from around the country at the Indianapolis event.
So we have that going for us — 50 state winners (and one in Puerto Rico and another living in Europe) and hundreds of other competitors around the country that didn’t quite make it to the national competition. They are like-minded. They know our history. They know the Constitution. And they are moved by it.
Some of us may lose a little faith in our young people because of body piercings, tattoos, their pop music and other things that we don’t understand. Witnessing the finals of the Indianapolis competition made me believe that our nation’s future is in better hands than I had previously thought.
It is likely natural for every generation to worry over the future because of what they see of the next generation that will take over. They see what they perceive as changes in values and beliefs and they wonder how it will all turn out.
I think most of us believe every generation has a responsibility to pass on what we know and believe to our young people. We owe thanks to the American Legion and this contest for passing on something that represents the best of us as Americans.
• Terry Horne is publisher and editor of the East Valley Tribune and general manager of 1013 Communications Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.