In 2014 only 36% of the American public could name the three branches of government. In 2017, only 24% could. Surveys have found that fewer than half of 12th graders are able to describe the meaning of federalism and that only 35% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. In a survey by the Carnegie Foundation, just over a third of Americans thought that, while the Founding Fathers gave each branch of government significant power, they gave the president “the final say,” and just under half (47%) knew that a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court carries the same legal weight as a 9-0 ruling. Almost a third mistakenly believed that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling could be appealed, and one in four believed that when the Supreme Court divides 5-4, the decision is referred to Congress for resolution. (Sixteen percent thought it needed to be sent back to the lower courts.) The Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI has amassed an enormous amount of research confirming the nature and extent of Americans’ civic deficit.
We can attribute many contemporary problems of American governance to the fact that large numbers of citizens know little or nothing about the country’s legal and political structures or the values those structures were intended to advance. This is increasingly problematic.
- As a purely practical matter, individuals who don’t know what officeholders do, who don’t understand the division of responsibility between federal, state and local government units, who don’t know who has authority to solve their problems with zoning or trash removal or missing social security payments or the myriad other issues that arise at the intersection of public services and individual needs, lack personal efficacy.
- Voters who have only the haziest notion of the tasks for which their elected officials are responsible have no way of evaluating the performance of those officials for purposes of casting informed votes. People who have never encountered, and thus don’t understand, the basic philosophy of the U.S. Constitution can neither form an allegiance to its principles nor articulate reasons for rejecting such an allegiance. Civic ignorance has consequences. Rather than seeing themselves as part of the American mosaic, rather than seeing diversity through the lens of e pluribus unum, the loyalties of the uninformed tend to default to their tribal affiliations.
In Diversity and Distrust, Stephen Macedo addressed the importance of civic education and the civic mission of public schools. As he wrote, the project of creating citizens is one that every liberal democratic state must undertake. It’s a project requiring what he called “a degree of moral convergence” in order to sustain a constitutional order. The most pluralist, diverse and tolerant polities still require substantial agreement on basic political values. Such agreement (or disagreement, for that matter) requires knowing what those values are.
Various educational reforms being advocated—whether those require an increased emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, increased standardized testing, new instructional methodologies, or school “choice”—have thus far had one thing in common: they have ignored the civic mission of the schools. The resulting, widespread lack of basic civic literacy is a prominent reason for the alarming decline of America’s democratic norms and institutions.
The contrast between students in the majority of states that have largely abandoned the teaching of civics with students from those few that have continued to offer and fund effective civic education is striking. In the aftermath of the horrific shooting at Marjorie Stoneham Douglas school in Parkland, Florida, the activism and eloquence of the students who survived frequently raised the question “why are these kids so articulate and effective?”
As the Christian Science Monitor explained,
Thanks to state law, they have benefited from a civic education that many Americans have gone without – one that has taught them how to politically mobilize, articulate their opinions, and understand complex legislative processes. Now they are using their education to lead their peers across the country.
“Parkland really shows the potential of public civic education,” says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
Any education reform that neglects the civic mission of the schools is inadequate by definition.