Trustees | General Education

America and Arizona Students—Back to School

NATIONAL LEDGER   |  August 25, 2009 by U.S. Senator Jon Kyl

It’s that time of year. Summer is drawing to a close, and schools are getting ready to open. While families and educators prepare for the school year, we all have an opportunity to consider the importance of ensuring that America’s students receive a well-rounded education—one that emphasizes not just reading and math, but American history and civics, as well.

American history is an endless tale of inspiration—a rich tapestry of individual accomplishments, heroes, great movements, and victories for freedom and democracy.

It’s essential that students learn about America’s watershed moments, its most consequential people, and of the special idea on which our government was founded.

What is this idea? In brief, ours is a government from the bottom up, one that functions by “the consent of the governed,” as written in the Declaration of Independence. Americans inherently possess rights that they can lose only when they voluntarily cede them.

Our Founding Fathers knew that Americans’ knowledge of civics and of our system of government is directly related to the health of our country. Proficiency in civics and American history prepares students to be good citizens. Good citizens have faith in American ideas and values. Without that faith, the country could lose its will defend itself, and, indeed, lose its will to survive.

As former National Endowment for the Humanities chair Lynne Cheney has written, “Knowledge of the ideas that have molded us and the ideas that have mattered to us functions as kind of a civic glue.”

Unfortunately, study after study shows that many young Americans don’t have a firm grasp of even basic civics.

According to a recent survey by the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, just 26.5 percent of Arizona’s high-school students could name George Washington as our first president. Not even a quarter could identify the two parts of Congress. Fewer than 10 percent knew that nine justices sit on the Supreme Court.

Of course, this problem is not unique to Arizona. The most recent survey from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that just 27 percent of high-school seniors—many of whom approach voting age—meet the “proficient” standard, with more than half falling below the “basic” level.

A survey from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni shows that college students, too, lack fundamental civics knowledge. Four out of five college seniors from America’s top 55 colleges and universities received a grade of D or F on the council’s civics survey.

For example, while nearly 100 percent of respondents correctly answered questions about popular television shows and music, just 22 percent were able to identify the phrase “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” as a line from the Gettysburg Address—one of the most important speeches in American history.

Part of the explanation for these students’ inability to score well on a civics test is that not a single one of the top 55 national and liberal arts colleges requires a course in American history. In 1990, an acclaimed study by the Association of American Colleges concluded, “As far as what passes for college curriculum, anything goes.”

Another part of the problem, as former education secretary William Bennett has written, is that today’s history textbooks don’t relate the fascinating drama of our nation or capture its unique and special nature. Many provide diluted versions of some of the individuals, ideas, and events that inspire us and focus instead on a bland, politically-correct narrative.

As Pulitzer-Prize winning author and historian David McCullough has said, “No harm is done to history by making it something someone would want to read.”

This school year we must, as a nation, agree upon the importance of renewing civics education and take action to make sure our students learn the exciting and inspiring story of our country. It’s of paramount importance for generations to come.

Sen. Jon Kyl is the Senate Republican Whip and serves on the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees.


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