On Wednesday, the National Center for Education Statistics (part of the U.S. Department of Education and Institute of Education Sciences) released its 2010 report card that looked at the state of civics education and student knowledge in American schools. And once again — surprise — it wasn’t pretty.
The study found 64 percent of the nearly 10,000 high school seniors surveyed had only a bare-bones understanding of American civics and that — for the fourth year in a row — their average scores slipped. Just 24 percent had what the study described as “proficient” understanding.
What does that actually mean? Well, the study found, for example, that most seniors were able to “identify an activity that is part of civic life” or “identify the constitutional issue in a Supreme Court case.” Cool — but not exactly constitutional scholar-level knowledge for an 18-year-old about to graduate and become a full-fledged, tax-paying, voting participant in our democracy. (Oh wait, he or she probably won’t vote as less than one-in-four eligible young Americans actually did so in 2010.) On the other hand, less than a quarter of high school seniors could “identify a power granted to Congress by the Constitution” or “define the term ‘melting pot’ and argue if it applies to the U.S.”
(But yet we’re still shocked — shocked! — that twice as many Americans can name at least two members of the “The Simpsons” TV family than can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.)
While these studies are an important tool in helping wave the red flag about the dangers of the demise of civics education in America, they obviously do not work on their own.
Thankfully, however, there are those who keep trying to break through. For example, the nonprofit Center for Civic Education has created various programs that try to help raise civics awareness and participation. Among its programs is Project Citizen, whose aim is to help students and others learn how they can monitor and influence public policy. For example, one Project Citizen initiative, established by Kentucky Advocates for Civic Education and spearheaded by University of Kentucky journalism students Gary Hermann and Lindsey Austin, led to the creation of a bill that would require state schools to provide additional civics education classes and mandate community service for high school students. Hermann and Austin worked with high school and junior high school students to draft and lobby for the bill. The bill has already gained the support of some state senators and will be introduced in the next legislative session.
Still, we — and others — will rightly continue to warn of the risks presented by an uninformed and disengaged citizenry when our system of government is founded on the idea that those citizens, when given the chance, will thoughtfully debate their options and make the best choice. And we — like others — will continue to stress the importance of not just teaching civics from a book, but allowing it to play out in practice.
We’ve known for a long time that warnings alone won’t cut it. As the 19th century educator Horace Mann, widely referred to as “The Father of American Education,” wrote way back in 1845: “The great moral attribute of self-government cannot be born and matured in a day; and if school children are not trained to it, we only prepare ourselves for disappointment if we expect it from grown men.”
Until we as a country decide to take civics education seriously — until we acknowledge that you can’t skimp on the serious preparation in class, trample their rights in school newsrooms (and beyond) and just flip the citizen switch “on” as we push our students out the door — it’s time to quit acting so surprised.