Government of the people, by the people, requires that the people know how they should be governed. And yet, only a quarter of people in a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center could name all three branches of the United States government – executive, legislative and judicial, and 37 percent were unable to name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment..
This lack of basic knowledge is always cause for alarm, but is particularly worrisome now, when our rights and freedoms, and the inner workings of our government are routinely questioned and challenged – including from within the White House as documented by the media. Almost all the answers can be found in the U.S. Constitution, which is celebrated every September 17 on Constitution Day. The oft-overlooked holiday serves as a reminder for all citizens to become better acquainted with the document that serves as the framework for our nation’s governance.
Knowing the U.S. Constitution is the key to making sure that we operate within the parameters established by the founding fathers. It ensures that the Constitution remains a living, breathing document and the bedrock of our democracy. Only by knowing our freedoms and rights are we able to safeguard them from attempts to dilute them. Only by knowing the boundaries of what’s permissible can we prevent threats to the more perfect union that was created over 200 years ago.
Not in the 14 years since Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia led the effort to elevate this holiday has Constitution Day warranted more attention than it does this year, when our nation is locked in often rancorous debates over fundamental issues such as freedom of the press, gun rights and the emoluments clause. Engaging in informed discussions about these issues requires a basic working knowledge of the Constitution, where our system of checks and balances limiting the power of each of the three branches of government is spelled out and our fundamental freedoms are so carefully enumerated.
Sen. Byrd wanted all Americans to learn and know the Constitution, so he required government offices and any educational institution that receives federal funding to teach about the document every year. At The State University of New York, we take that responsibility very seriously. Every year, we distribute pocket Constitutions, provide a link to the Constitution on our campus websites and create opportunities for students to register to vote.
This year, with the dialogue on constitutional issues at a fever pitch, we are even more mindful of our role in helping to establish an informed citizenry. As the nation’s largest comprehensive system of higher education and the state’s leading educator, SUNY has both an opportunity and responsibility to elevate the discussion around the substance of the U.S. Constitution.
Each of our 64 campuses will conduct educational events around the Constitution, with panels and lectures on topics as diverse as the first amendment, judicial appointments and executive privilege. SUNY Maritime College will host a Constitution trivia contest for faculty, staff and students, and the SUNY College at Brockport will hold a naturalization ceremony on its campus.
Across the system, SUNY will conduct voter registration efforts that will encourage students and people in the community to exercise one of their most fundamental rights as a U.S. citizen, the right to vote. The right to vote is perhaps the best example of the dynamic nature of the Constitution, with amendments expanding voting rights to ever larger segments of the population after initially bestowing it upon an elite few.
For some, lessons on the Constitution have dimmed over time. For others, these lessons were never well learned. At a time when the phrase “Constitutional crisis” is regularly in the news, I urge everyone to pause from their busy lives and revisit this historic document. Knowing our basic rights as American citizens safeguards our democracy, encourages informed debate and ensures that we’ll preserve our system of government for generations to come.
Dr. Kristina M. Johnson is the 13th Chancellor of The State University of New York.