Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Constitution Day Sheds Light On Knowledge, Congressional Differences

Stan Jastrzebski

Here’s a quick and easy way to make public officials nervous: get them to play a quiz show about the laws they’ve sworn to uphold.

That sort of competition, complete with game show-style buzzers, is the cornerstone of Purdue’s yearly Constitution Day events, hosted by the Ackerman Center for Democratic Citizenship.

Two teams of local notables, including State Rep. Sheila Klinker (D-Lafayette) and West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis faced off, answering questions in a number of constitution-related categories.

As the dignitaries racked up points, an anteroom offered passerby a chance to identify the Constitution’s signers from a painting of the event, featured multimedia displays explaining parts of the document and offered the chance to take part in a study of current attitudes toward government and freedoms enjoyed by Americans, which will be contrasted with a similar study taken several decades ago.

Ackerman Center Director Phil VanFossen says he’s heartened, year after year, by what players of the quiz know about the Constitution.

“Their knowledge, actually, is always a bit surprising to me – in a good way,” he says. “That they do know more about the Constitution and particularly their rights found therein than we given them credit for. The studies done nationwide are not very encouraging. Recent studies indicate that many young students can name the Three Stooges, but they can’t name the three branches of government.”

In this year’s game, Representative Klinker’s team routed Mayor Dennis’s team. Lafayette City Council President Steve Meyer was on the winning side. He says he’s sometimes frustrated when his constituents ask him to do something he’s not empowered to do.

“You know, a lot of people, unfortunately I think, forget what they learned in civics in high school,” Meyer says. “So it’s always a constant renewal and reminding them of the different ways government works and the different branches. So it’s days like this – you get out, you encourage people to come to city council meetings, you encourage them to get involved in local government.”

County election board co-chairman Jared Bond, a member of the defeated side, says he sees that lack of information translating to voter apathy.

“I think Indiana has done a good job with our curriculum in social studies and in government. But overall as a country, we take it for granted. We have countries overseas where you may have voter turnout of 75-percent plus. And here in Indiana in this primary, in Tippecanoe County, we struggled to get 13-percent turnout.”

Phil VanFossen says that may be traced to leaders in Washington forgetting the circumstances that led to the Constitution’s signing…

“You had groups with very different agendas but they understood that in order to get the nation together, and to form the Constitution they were going to need to compromise. And Roger Sherman developed the Great Compromise and we have the document as a result. So I think knowing that history is at least as important – maybe not quite as important, but is important -- as knowing those rights and how our government works,” VanFossen says.

Roger Sherman, by the way, represented Connecticut at the Constitutional Convention. Just one of the many things to be learned on this Constitution Day.

Related Content