THE ISSUE: S.C. Civics Initiative
OUR OPINION: Getting students to know what immigrants must know is a start
In conjunction with Ken Burns’ documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” that is airing in seven parts, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has released a study about Americans’ historical literacy.
The findings are disappointing but not surprising.
According to Daniel Burnett, spokesman for the higher education nonprofit that fights for historical literacy on college campuses, only 60 percent of Americans know FDR was president during World War II, and less than half know he was the president responsible for the New Deal.
The situation is similar for Theodore Roosevelt: Just two in five Americans associated him with the Panama Canal. Only about a quarter could identify him with the Bull Moose Party — an especially lackluster result considering the survey was plain old multiple choice.
“The results are disappointing, but they’re not new. Previous studies on historical amnesia from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have revealed that a quarter of Americans don’t know that D-Day occurred during World War II. Among Americans 18 to 34, that number grows to a chilling one-third,” Burnett said.
While Burnett and his organization focus on where colleges are failing to teach U.S. history, three former South Carolina governors and state business leaders are launching an initiative to improve what students know when they get to the college level.
According to the Pew Research Center, only about a third of Americans can name the three branches of the U.S. government, much less say what each does. Studies of high school students in Oklahoma and Arizona showed less than a 4 percent passage rate on the U.S. Citizenship Civics test — the test all immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship must pass and do so at a 92 percent rate.
On Wednesday, the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, former South Carolina Govs. Dick Riley, Jim Hodges and James Edwards joined in announcing the South Carolina Civics Education Initiative. The state legislative effort aims to ensure all South Carolina high school graduates have a basic understanding of American civics and history.
“It is absolutely critical that all South Carolina students have a sound knowledge of civics,” said state co-chair Riley, who also served as U.S. secretary of education from 1993-2001. “This is not a partisan issue. It is an American issue.”
The South Carolina Civics Education Initiative will promote an active and engaged citizenry by requiring all South Carolina high school students and those seeking general educational development (GED) study to take the 100-question USCIS Civics Test.
The USCIS Citizenship Civics test consists of 100 basic questions about American civics and history, such as:
n What is the name of the president of the United States now?
n Name one branch or part of the government.
n What is the capital of your state?
n What major event happened on September 11, 2001, in the United States?
The legislation, which supporters plan to have introduced during the next session of the General Assembly in January, will award students making a minimum score of 60 with extra credit toward graduation. Students will be allowed to take the test as many times as necessary.
“Understanding basic civics and how our government works needs to be a priority,” said Columbia businessman and Honor Flight of SC Chairman Bill Dukes, also a state co-chair. “Civic education will enable us to sustain our constitutional democracy. Our citizens must be informed and responsible. Our free and open society cannot succeed if our citizens don’t understand the fundamental values and principles of democracy.”
One of the popular and attractive aspects of the effort is the fact that there are no development costs for the test and little to no costs to develop study materials because the test itself and a wide range of study materials are available on the Internet for free.
Six other states on Wednesday announced similar state legislative efforts: Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Missouri, South Dakota and Utah. The goal of the Civics Education Initiative is for every state to pass this legislation by Sept. 17, 2017 — the 230th anniversary of the Constitution.
Concerted efforts on both the college and high school levels to promote understanding of government and U.S. history are necessary. Putting the weight of state legislation behind the Civics Education Initiative is an important step in the right direction to cure what Burnett calls Americans’ “historical amnesia.”
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