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The Forum | General Education

South Carolina Will Make Civic Education a Priority

March 19, 2020 by Edwin Williamson and Nathaniel Urban

The South Carolina General Assembly is now productively confronting a crisis in civic education, using its authority to get its public colleges and universities to take seriously their responsibility to better prepare graduates for active and informed citizenship. Thomas Jefferson famously declared, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people….They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” To judge from our deteriorating civic discourse and declining rates of civic literacy, the legislature’s initiative is urgently needed.

Hence it is a very encouraging signal that the Senate of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina recently passed Senate Bill 35. The bill reforms an already-existing law that requires all public high schools, colleges, and universities in South Carolina to provide “instruction concerning the United States Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Declaration of Independence to each student” for at least one year for high school students and for three semester credit hours for college students. It was introduced early last year and awaits a final vote in the House, where it is known as House Bill 4296.

The value of civic education is evident in the original mission of publicly funded higher education in South Carolina. Maximilian LaBorde, who authored the first history of South Carolina College in 1874, explained that those who originally supported the college “saw plainly, that to preserve our rights we must understand them; that ignorance was incompatible with liberty; and that the only security for its perpetuation was to be found in the education of the people.”  

Americans’ deficient understanding of their political system has been well-documented. Most recently, a survey conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center revealed that 51% of college graduates could not identify the correct term lengths for U.S. Senators and Representatives, and 15% answered that Brett Kavanaugh is the current Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (another 16% selected the late Antonin Scalia). When the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation administered the U.S. Citizenship Test to 41,000 Americans, 66% of South Carolinians failed (only seven states did worse). 

Shocking as these results may be at first glance, they are not hard to understand. What Will They Learn?, an annual study of core curricula at 1,127 American colleges and universities, found that only 18% required a foundational course in U.S. government or history.

At present, only three public universities in South Carolina—Coastal Carolina University, South Carolina State University, and the University of South Carolina–Aiken—require their students to take U.S. government or history. If House Bill 4296 passes, South Carolina will join CaliforniaOklahomaFloridaTexas, and Georgia in mandating that all college students complete one or more courses designed to build civic competency.

Citizens who understand their history—our country’s triumphs, the work of our ancestors to build a more perfect union, and the injustices that remain for today’s leaders to address—are girded with a sense of common purpose. Shared understanding of, and appreciation for, what unites us as a citizenry is the best antidote to political tribalism and partisan division.

The bill will not, by itself, solve civic illiteracy. But ensuring that students study their Constitution and the political thought of its architects is an important first step toward rebuilding public trust and a healthier civic dialogue. Far from representing a radical intrusion into the curricular affairs of the state’s colleges and universities, the bill would pull institutions back to the original mission of publicly funded higher education in South Carolina.

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