Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

To honor the Constitution, let's help schools create savvy citizens

September 15, 2011 by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Congressman Lee Hamilton


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Flickr photo by zaui
At the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a woman approached the eldest delegate, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, outside of Independence Hall. She asked whether the framers had created a monarchy or a republic. In reply, he told her that America would be “a republic, if you can keep it.”

Dr. Franklin’s brief response captures a vital, often overlooked aspect of one of the key ingredients in making our democracy work: an educated and engaged citizenry. In a democracy in which the final authority rests with the people, our local, state and federal governments will only be as responsive and great as citizens demand them to be.

Over two centuries after Dr. Franklin’s remark, many believe that the democratic process he helped create is growing incapable of meeting America’s great national challenges. A recent study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts reports that only a third of Americans trust the federal government as an institution. This distrust is understandable among generations that grew up in the shadow of political scandals, increasing ideological polarization, and financial crisis.

Knowledge of our system of governance is not passed along through the gene pool.

When this distrust leads to disengagement, cynicism, and a national attention span that fails to see politics as much more than a series of elections and scandals, it distracts from the many challenges that we as a society must face – and can only face together through civic and political engagement. The great national challenges of our time can only be solved by an engaged citizenry knowledgeable about our problems and how best to solve them.

Those who blame our democratic shortfalls on a media failing its responsibilities, the proliferation of money in politics, and politicians serving narrow interests rather than the common good are not wrong – all these are very real threats to American democracy. But all three of these threats, and others, would be ameliorated by a more knowledgeable and engaged citizenry.

Teacher's corner

In what ways does your school and community prepare all students to become active, engaged citizens? Is your school's student government an effective avenue to address issues facing students? Use this lesson to analyze the presence of democratic principles in your school.

Knowledge of our system of governance and our rights and responsibilities as citizens is not passed along through the gene pool. Each generation of Americans must be taught these basics. Families and parents have a key role to play, yet our schools remain the one universal experience we all have to gain civic knowledge and skills. That is the civic mission of schools. Only through education – which spans well over a decade of a child’s life and encompasses both that which takes place within the classroom and outside of it – can we ensure that every young person can live up to Dr. Franklin’s challenge.

Sandra Day O'Connor served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1981 to 2006.  Lee Hamilton served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1965 to 1999. They are co-chairs of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. This post is excerpted from the report "Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools" issued today by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, The Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics, the National Conference on Citizenship and CIRCLE. Electronic copies of the full report are available online at

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