WASHINGTON—We often hear today that our democracy is in peril. One reason offered is the lack of understanding by the public of how our government works. Another is that the curriculum in elementary and high schools today deemphasize history and social studies due to pressures to focus on testing of the fundamentals of reading and math.
No Child Left Behind (signed into law in Jan. 2002) provided incentives for math, science and reading and none for history and civics, and its successor, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (signed into on Dec. 2015) placed the same emphasis.
Civics education is much reduced compared to the 1960s and nonexistent in some public schools. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a strong advocate of civics education, said in an interview on ABC on May 27, 2010, “About half of institutions have stopped making civics and government a requirement for high school.”
Here are some facts to ponder. The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s national surveys published findings in 2011 of the past decade of surveys. Only one-third of Americans could name all three branches of government. Another third could not name any branch of government. Just under half of Americans (47 percent) knew that a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court carries the same legal weight as a 9-0 ruling. Nearly a third incorrectly thought that a U.S. Supreme Court decision could be appealed.
The average citizen’s ignorance of how the three branches of government work could be amusing if it weren’t so alarming. For example, nearly one quarter (23 percent) believed that when the Supreme Court decides narrowly in a 5-4 decision, the matter is referred to Congress for resolution.
The poor state of civics and history education was the topic of discussion of a panel on Feb. 22—appropriately on Washington’s birthday—hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think-tank.
Among the panelists, Charles Sahm, director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute, cited a 2008 survey of 17-year-olds that found that 57 percent could not correctly place the Second World War in its time period.
Historian David Randall, director of communications at National Association of Scholars (NAS) and lead author of “Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics” (NAS, 2017), referred to reports that the majority of college graduates don’t know that U.S. senators serve six years. Nor do they know what the Emancipation Proclamation did. The majority also could not identify the victorious general at Yorktown.
Ignorance of Communism
A YouGov internet poll of 2,300 Americans aged 16 and above, sponsored by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC), found that millennials show a persistent ignorance of communism. YouGov is nonpartisan and conducts surveys on the internet about politics, public affairs, and other topics of general interest per its website.
Having no living memory of the Cold War, it wasn’t surprising to see that 55 percent of millennials believed that communism was and still is a problem, compared to 80 percent of baby boomers. Astonishingly, nearly one third (32 percent) responded “true” to the statement that President George W. Bush killed more people than Joseph Stalin.
VOC Executive Director Marion Smith believes the schools are failing to teach the history of communism, which can explain why millennials are so uncritically accepting of socialism.
Robert Pondiscio, from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said that preparing youth for “active citizenship” requires shared knowledge and sense of identity which is lacking today. Pondiscio is a senior adviser to Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools based in Harlem, New York,
He drew from E.D. Hirsch’s seminal book, “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” published in 1987, which coined the term “cultural literacy.” Hirsh provides in his book, 5,000 “essential” names, phrases, dates and concepts that every educated American should know.
The preface of “Cultural Literacy” states, “To be cultural literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.”
Pondiscio said that some of this essential shared information falls under the rubric of patriotism and nationalism, which some educators are uncomfortable with teaching about. However, Pondiscio thinks that extolling the national culture can provide the sense of identity and trust necessary for attaining “active citizenship.” He quoted Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Jonathan Haidt, who said that patriotism is a virtue, “a real moral commitment, not a pose to cover up racist bigotry.”
Pondiscio is disheartened by what he found in the mission statements of the 100 largest school districts in America. There was no term, patriotic or patriotism, and only two included the word democracy. None said “America” or “American,” but 28 mentioned “global” as in “global economy.” References to college career easily outnumbered “civic” and “citizen.”
“It raises in my mind the question whether it is time to reinvest our children in a shared American narrative: a complicated to be sure and at times uncomfortable narrative but in which we all share,” Pondiscio said.
The Founding Fathers, who established a new democracy knew well the importance of civic education, said Charles Sahm who quoted from George Washington’s Farewell Address:
“Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”
Washington’s aide Alexander Hamilton removed the two sentences twice but Washington put them back in, indicating the importance he attributed to civics, Sahm said.
Organizing Kids, Perversion of The Civics Mission
Juan Rangel spoke of civic education from an immigrant perspective. Rangel served as CEO of the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), Chicago’s largest Hispanic community-based organization. He founded the Octavio Paz Charter School in 1998 which since then has expanded to 12 K-8 elementary schools, two high schools, and one K-12 school. As such, it is one of the largest network of charter schools in the country. It is 98 percent Hispanic.
Having been a community organizer, one might expect Rangel to approve when a teacher asked him in 2006 if it was alright to take one of the students to a march and rally in downtown Chicago. He firmly denied the request. Rangel believes it is not the role of the school to make activists out of children.
“[We have a] a tendency to take kids out of school and show kids are part of the movement, whereas in reality we ought to be organizing the adults, not the kids,” Rangel said.
Growing up in an immigrant status, the school has a responsibility to make them Americans, part of the country, where they feel they have a stake. He said, we are not doing that very well anymore.
David Randall, who writes and speaks extensively on education and education-reform issues, provided several instances of civic engagement as activism, which he regarded as a perversion of the civics mission. He believes the focus should be on civic literacy.
He said indignantly that undergraduate students from the University of Denver were sent to the public high schools to teach civics, which meant “to teach America is built on oppression and privilege.” He said that the vocational training for the undergraduates was “bundled” with a number of political beliefs.
On Nov. 9, Pomona College paid to bus students to an anti-Trump rally in downtown LA, Pondiscio said.
High school students “from Maryland to Oregon” walked out of class to protest Trump, he said. High school teachers in Manhattan referred to students walking out of class in protest of Trump as “a surge of civic engagement.”
Randall said, disapprovingly, that “civic engagement” was being used as a cover for political protest, “virtually all on one side of the political spectrum.”