As Rhode Islanders focus on the just completed Presidential primaries, it’s wise to stop and consider the education level of the populace is on civic matters. The picture is not pretty. Ignorance abounds.
So-called educated people – including college students – are woefully devoid of knowledge of American history and heritage. Studies confirm that universities are doing little or nothing to address the gap and students are coming to universities without much of a clue about how our system of government works.
Teachers and parents apparently have a hole in their knowledge as well. An annual survey by the Newseum Institute documented that one-third of Americans could not name a single right under the First Amendment to the Constitution. College seniors at the 55 top-ranked colleges failed to identify the significance of Valley Forge, recognize key words from the Gettysburg Address or even basic facts about the Voting Rights Act. If grades were given out for their knowledge 80 percent of college students would have received a “D” or an “F.” Some 10 percent of these collegians thought that “Judge Judy” was on the Supreme Court!
How did we get to such a situation? Despite a chorus of concerns about the woeful education at lower grades, little improvement has been made in the civic knowledge of K-12 students. In fact, when the survey was conducted among college students the questions were borrowed from standard high school civics curricula. Only one in five students could identify James Madison as the Father of our Constitution. More than half of the collegians did not know how this country can amend the Constitution. Forty percent didn’t know that Congress has the power to declare war. Most didn’t know that a presidential impeachment trial is before the U.S. Senate. Less than 20 percent could accurately identify the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. Their parents reflected the same deficiencies. Only folks over 65 had a better grasp of history and civics.
What should we be doing about civics education? First of all, the country needs a renewed commitment to the idea that human fulfillment is to be found in liberty or self-government. Ethnic or genetic inheritance is not the unifier of us as citizens. “E Pluribus Unum,” – From Many, One – is the connecting fiber of the country. Education at all levels has to prepare each generation to participate in a democratic republic and to understand the struggles that sustain our liberty. As noted in the report recently released by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, civics education is not a jingoistic attempt to insist that America has no blemishes or to hide its darker moments of failure. It is about stressing that the government “of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” This is the cause for which our ancestors fought. “They did not merely die for hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet” (Wilfred McClay).
It’s far past time to tune up civics education. Colleges should require at least one course in the history of America, its workings, and the core documents which enshrine the principles of government. There should be mandatory tests on civics similar to the math and English tests administered today. All of us should confront the crisis in civic education and restore widespread awareness of our history and government. Only then can we be able to keep the republic without losing it (Benjamin Franklin).
Violet is an attorney and former state attorney general.