Civics Education in Schools
To the Editor:
There is a forgotten foundation of the “democracy” Americans speak of so often. Most often we think our system of government best celebrated and promoted by flag waving, summer parades, the feting of active soldiers and veterans, and voting. When we worry that our democracy is slipping away, we think the causes are political party fighting, and differences in issues like abortion, immigration, voter rights, and tax policy. If we could only make progress in those areas.
But these patterns of citizen activity and worry are merely the symptoms of our decay, not the substance of it. We are declining faster than we have words to describe because we have neglected the civic education of our children. This does not speak merely to removal of the pledge of allegiance and prayer from schools, but something additional. We get closer to the truth when we complain about lack of civility and lack of trust in our institutions.
The history of democracy, including the history of our own country, teaches us what is missing in our homes and schools, and even our universities. Some form of highly focused compulsory education is part of the constitutions of most or all democracies. In our Constitution, the razor-sharp focus of the curriculum is specified in Article 4, Section 4, which specifies that the federal government must guarantee every state has a “republican form of government.” Having a republican form means a government that teaches its youth how to be “republican” in the historical sense.
And, in point of fact, every state constitution in our union mandates a K-12 education system in order to teach young people how to be contributing citizens in our form of government. You can’t do democracy without educating the citizenry in how to participate.
At the start of the twenty-first century, 12th graders were on the same level that 8th graders occupied in the mid-1970s in civics. The ignorance of school-age children continued-on apace in the first decade. A 2006 report by the National Assessment of Education Progress for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders found that a third of students scored at a level of “near total ignorance” in civics.
One recent study of eighth-graders shows only 18 percent scored proficient in U.S. history, 23 percent in civics, and 27 percent in geography. These were the lowest scores on national tests in any core study area.
Once out of school and ready for the voting booth, the results of our scanty civic education are scary. One survey of adults shows only one quarter could name all three branches of government, and more than a third could not name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. Some 40 percent didn’t know how many Senators represent each state in Congress.
How liable, then, are our citizenry to know the intricacies of checks and balances, and the supremacy clause in the Constitution, two critical keys of democracy?
An education in democracy studies must be reborn at the local and state school board levels, and in homes where students live, if we truly are to have a renewed interest in democracy going forward.
Woods Cross, Utah