Panel discusses civics education and understanding of the Constitution

For Monticello High School senior Morgan Rittenhouse voting in her first election earlier this month was an exciting experience. However, casting her ballot made her realize she was in a small minority of engaged citizens her age.

“I noticed I was in a different age group, worlds apart from the others, mostly people were my parents’ age or older,” said Rittenhouse.

Getting a better understanding of the state of civics education and the public’s understanding of the Constitution were both topics for a panel convened at the school on Tuesday by the League of Women Voters of Charlottesville/Albemarle .

League members said the topic was especially important given the intense national debate that preceded November’s election.

“With recent elections, it seems people’s knowledge is woefully lacking,” said David Deck. “People talk about taking the government back, but we are the government. It seems to me the country at-large has such a limited appreciation for what the national government is formed to do, and what it can’t do.”

(L to R) Emily Dooley (MHS teacher), Morgan Rittenhouse (MHS student), Katie White (MHS student),
Kelly Carmichael (Center for the Constitution), and Sean O’Brien (Center for the Constitution)

Sean O’Brien, executive director of the Center for the Constitution at Montpelier, shared with the audience data from a recent survey on the nation’s understanding of the Constitution.

For instance, the survey found that 38.2 percent of people age 18-24 think it is “time for a new Constitution.” O’Brien pointed out this was the same group that professed a lack of knowledge about the very document they wanted to replace.

“[Young people] don’t know much about it, and they haven’t read it, and they are also not voting,” said O’Brien. “There’s a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you are not taking the time to vote, and you think the Constitution doesn’t work, maybe those things … are affecting each other.”

To provide a perspective from the local classroom, student Rittenhouse was joined on the panel by fellow senior Katie White and their government teacher, Emily Dooley.

“People my age really need to understand that if they want to impact the way our government operates, then they need to participate and not complain,” said Rittenhouse in an interview.

Dooley described the Citizen Action Plan project, a requirement for all Monticello seniors, which has students work in teams to become experts on a policy issue. Each team has face-to-face meetings with community members who can help them explore a topic.

“Our real focus here at Monticello High School is to try to create active citizens, students who are knowledgeable, and know how to participate in their communities and in our society as a whole,” said Dooley.

League members asked if the students at Monticello were actually reading the Constitution and whether they viewed it as a living document.  White responded that she was actively reading and analyzing the text in class.

“We’ve talked in our class about how [the Constitution] was written at a different time,” said White.  “We’ve talked about how over the course of our country’s [history] that we have changed it to fit our growing needs.”

League member Miriam Bender asked about the students’ education on the Bill of Rights saying there was a “horrible lack of dialogue in this country” because people don’t understand the protections in the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

“We have UVA law students come in bi-weekly,” responded Rittenhouse.  “They talk about each of the amendments.”

Bender said after the discussion that she was pleased to hear about the students’ work.

“At least they are focusing time and attention on it,” said Bender.  “I hope that will spark them to ask more questions about the amendments to the Constitution.  So much of current litigation and political discussion is about the Bill of Rights.”