Posted in: Culture

Civic Illiteracy in America

By | May 25, 2017
President Barack Obama views student projects created on laptops during a tour at Mooresville Middle School in Mooresville, N.C., June 6, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama views student projects created on laptops during a tour at Mooresville Middle School in Mooresville, N.C., June 6, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Senate Republicans’ refusal to hold hearings for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, was viewed by many as a dereliction of constitutional duty. His nomination was ignored for an unprecedented 293 days, ultimately leaving the court vacancy unfilled for over a year. Despite the fact that a solid majority of Americans wanted the Senate to hold hearings and vote on Garland’s nomination, Senate Republicans made what would be a politically astute—yet outrageously irresponsible—decision to wait until the inauguration of the next president. Of course, the election of Donald Trump transformed this risky move into a political victory.

While few would deny that the court has become increasingly politicized in recent decades, Republicans’ treatment of Garland is certainly the greatest threat to an independent judiciary in recent history. Given the court’s significance in our constitutional system, why wasn’t there more public pressure to confirm him?

There may be an easy answer to these questions: the American public simply lacks basic knowledge about the Constitution and the Supreme Court. In fact, a Newsweek survey from 2011 found that 70 percent of Americans didn’t even know that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Sadly, this is not the only piece of evidence indicating that Americans are not as familiar with the Constitution and the Supreme Court as one might expect—a 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that only 26 percent of respondents could name all three branches of government, and only 33 percent knew that, in the case of a 4-4 Supreme Court tie, the decision of the lower court stands.

These dismal findings prompt another, broader question: why is it that the American public’s civic literacy is so poor? The basic organization of American government is not very complex, and the U.S. Constitution is a relatively short document. Americans should therefore have a much greater level of familiarity with the way their government operates. Schools, at both the K-12 and collegiate level, must make civic education a priority and should specifically ensure that students understand the Constitution and the Supreme Court.

The consequences of failures in civics education   

Many of the failures in civic education seem to originate from a disagreement regarding what a civics education should include. Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, believes that many schools have shifted away from traditional civics education. “I think there’s been a very misguided trend towards ignoring the actual knowledge that a person needs to understand our institutions,” Poliakoff told the HPR. “What’s happened is there’s been a very good, a very wholesome, focus on civic obligations on community service; things that are really quite important for our duty to our communities, but are very different from the things that a school quintessentially is responsible for doing, which is exposing students to the knowledge and skills that they need.”

Rebecca Burgess, who manages the American Enterprise Institute Program on American Citizenship, provided another explanation for why there is little consensus surrounding the components of a thorough civics education in an interview with the HPR: “For a very long time, going back to say the 60s, the whole idea of a civics education kind of got subsumed within this idea of social studies, and that was just this big umbrella that covers sometimes everything from history to economics to geography to actual civics … And when you have an area that is so large, it’s hard to know exactly what it is that you’re going to do within that.”

While it would be misleading to say that poor civics education is the predominant cause of America’s current political division, it certainly has played a role. Burgess traced some of our political tensions to poor civic knowledge: “If a third of adult Americans don’t even know what the three branches of government are, that there are three branches of government, that we have a separation of powers, then…our ideas of what government ought to be doing will be different from people who think that there are three branches of government.”

The repercussions of failing to convey basic civic knowledge to students are not always immediately understood, but they are rather dire. To Poliakoff, the consequences of civic illiteracy are severe. “When our schools and our colleges and universities fail to set the kind of requirements that ensure that the students who leave their halls will be ready for engaged citizenship, they’re really letting the nation down.” In other words, we all suffer when civic education suffers.

A wake-up call for civic literacy

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government,” implying that our democratic system rests on the assumption that citizens are civically literate. If we are to believe Jefferson, surveys of Americans’ civic knowledge indicate that “the people” currently cannot be trusted to govern. Even Trump himself mistakenly believes that federal judges—like his sister, Maryanne Trump Barry—sign bills. The American political climate desperately requires an improvement in civic literacy.

While civic literacy as a whole is inadequate, it seems that Americans’ knowledge of the Supreme Court and the Constitution is especially poor. A recent survey commissioned by C-SPAN found that 90 percent of likely voters agreed with the statement, “decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court have an impact on my everyday life as a citizen,” yet 57 percent couldn’t name a single justice on the court. A 2015 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 12 percent of Americans thought that the Bill of Rights included the right to own a pet. Such a finding would be humorous if not for the profound consequences that come with an electorate unfamiliar with our Constitution.

All available evidence suggests that the American education system fails to convey basic civic knowledge to students. Despite civics being a common requirement in schools, only 24 percent of 12th grade students scored “proficient” on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress civics test. Even among college graduates, civic literacy is startlingly poor. A 2016 report by the ACTA found that almost a tenth of college graduates thought Judith Sheindlin—more commonly known as Judge Judy—was a member of the Supreme Court.

What happened to civics education?

To understand why civic literacy is so poor, it is necessary to consider the various pressures that have caused civics education to fall by the wayside. In a 2015 report on the state of professional development for civics teachers, Burgess argues that the focus on STEM— science, technology, engineering, and math—has limited federal and state funding for civics education.

The emphasis on standardized test scores in subjects other than civics has also taken a toll on students’ knowledge. Burgess explains that while “civics teachers themselves are immensely dedicated to the field … they’re just not given much time by their own districts. And so they might be the one … class of teachers … who would like more testing, because that seems to be the only way where you can get attention.”

Despite the numerous problems that come with excessive testing, Burgess argues that a standardized civics test would be beneficial. Poliakoff agreed, suggesting that a good “baseline” would be if “all the students that leave high school can at least pass the same test that a new citizen would have to pass.”

It is worth noting that the deterioration of civics education is not limited to K-12 schools; it has also been seen at the collegiate level. The 2016 ACTA report found that of more than 1,100 liberal arts colleges and universities surveyed, only 18 percent required students to take a course in American history or government. Considering this statistic, it is unsurprising that many college students graduate civically illiterate.

“What’s happened in higher education is a retreat from addressing the core question of any institution,” Poliakoff explained, “which is what does it mean to be a graduate of our institution, what does it mean to have a college or university degree? What’s happened is that departments have splintered and fragmented into their own little silos.”

Better ways to teach civics

While the level of civic ignorance may be frightening, there are numerous efforts underway to reinvigorate American civics education. A number of programs assist civics teachers by offering free teaching materials. For example, the Civics Renewal Network, run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, is a group of nonprofit organizations that offer free, online civics education teaching resources.

The CRN seeks to “bring together the many, many civics education organizations that are out there, to collaborate, to start talking to each other … to make more efficient use of our resources,” Ellen Iwamoto, the director of research support services at the Annenberg Center, told the HPR. The goal is to “help teachers by creating a website where they go and find great resources that they may not have known about.”

One of the most promising programs is iCivics, which was founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2009 with the mission to improve civic education throughout the country. iCivics hosts free games and lessons plans that can be used by teachers and students to “make the subject come alive.” In an interview with the HPR, iCivics Executive Director Louise Dubé said that the platform currently has over 5 million student users, over halfway to its goal of reaching 10 million citizens. “The original idea was to reinvent, or reimagine, civics, by putting kids at the center of the action,” Dubé said. “So in iCivics games you play as the president of the United States. We think that’s the only way to make it relevant to you.”

By making knowledge about our constitutional system more accessible to the average student, this kind of innovation has the potential to drastically change the way civics is taught and to increase the number of Americans who are civically literate.

As proof of iCivics’ teaching model, Dubé points to Florida, which in 2010 passed the Sandra Day O’Connor Education Act to require a semester of civics education in seventh grade. According to Dubé, at least 80 percent of these seventh grade teachers are using iCivics, and last year their students had a remarkable 68 percent proficiency. When compared to the 23 percent of eighth graders who were proficient on the 2014 NAEP civics test, it is clear that iCivics is indeed making a significant difference.

Dubé also confirmed the notion that Americans are especially lacking in knowledge about the judiciary. When launching iCivics, O’Connor “was particularly concerned about the independence of the judiciary … that really was her main issue,” Dubé explained. “She thought that that was because kids didn’t understand our system.” Consequently, iCivics has plenty of teaching materials that are specifically focused on the judiciary. It also helps that current Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is on the Governing Board of iCivics and mentions the program to most of the student groups she speaks to.

Hope for the future?

While programs like CRN and iCivics offer free, high quality resources to teachers and students, their success depends on whether people actually access those resources. Every school must make civics education a priority, rather than simply a minor graduation requirement. In today’s highly politicized environment, civics may be confused with politics, but they are not at all the same. According to Burgess, “a large part of the civics problem, is that as soon you start to talk about what is a good citizen, or what does citizenship mean, you start to rub up against values.” As a result, teachers “either retreat from inviting more controversy in the classroom, or just try and talk about it in the vaguest, largest way possible.” Requiring students to learn basic information about our government is not a partisan endeavor; it simply ensures that our democracy can function.

Despite the promising efforts being made to improve civic education, there is much more work to do. As Burgess puts it, “Everyone nods and says ‘oh my goodness, [civic illiteracy] is an immensely … troubling problem’ and then they move on, immediately. Part of that is just because it’s not an immensely sexy issue; it’s a long-term project.” Admittedly, there is no easy solution to the civic illiteracy our country faces, but it is a problem worth solving. The costs of an uninformed public are simply too great for us not to address the current deficits in civic knowledge.

Image Credit: Pete Souza, Official White House Photo

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