Trustees | General Education

Civics and civility

MYEASTERNSHOREMD   |  February 3, 2016 by Editorial

Some news outlets had a field day with headlines about survey results showing that there are college graduates who think TV’s Judge Judy serves on the Supreme Court.

The story came out of a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni titled called “A Crisis in Civic Education.” The report includes a copy of the survey questions. To be fair to the respondents, “Judge Judy” is not one of the choices. Judith Sheindlin is the name on the list, along with Elena Kagan who 61.6 percent of college graduates correctly identified.

Also on the list was Secretary of State John Kerry, who received 5.5 percent of responses from college graduates, and the late Lawrence Warren Pierce, a federal judge, who received 21.7 percent.

There were questions on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the current president of the Senate. Overall, the percentages for correct answers for both college graduates and other adults surveyed were not particularly strong.
“Educators and policymakers know we have a problem. For the last 15 years, organizations across the educational spectrum have focused on the need to revive American’s civic knowledge,” the ACTA report states.

A note about ACTA: It appears the organization is very concerned about cases such as Princeton University students calling for Woodrow Wilson’s name to be removed from the school for his history as a segregationist.
The gist of ACTA’s report is not new.

Last year, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and famed astronaut and former senator John Glenn penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal decrying the latest results from the National Assessment of Education Progress. The assessments showed that less than a quarter of eighth-graders scored proficient or higher on civics tests.
“They fundamentally do not understand our democratic system of government, and have shown no significant sign of progress since they were last tested in 2010,” O’Connor and Glenn, who were announcing the launch of their new interactive civics initiative, wrote of students.

The scores were little changed since the assessments were first administered in 1998, making it clear that few, if any, schools across the country improved upon civic education.

Could it be that much of the acrimony and polarization in political discourse today may stem from a growing number of adults who did not receive a strong education in civics?

The ACTA report speaks of the “polarized political culture” we face that “breeds ill-informed, ad hominem polemic.” We see it in the news frequently, and we have no doubt that politicians on both sides of the aisle are exploiting those who do not know or understand how the government works.

“America’s founders were united in their belief that our government requires engaged, well-informed citizens committed to the practice of self-government,” the ACTA report states. “A renewal of civic education can reverse America’s civic deficit and restore widespread awareness of our history and government.”

Teachers only have so much time with students. Schools must prioritize what they are teaching. Somewhere along the way, time needs to be made for solid civics lessons.
“Civic education cannot be an afterthought. Citizenship is a skill that must be taught over time with the same devotion we give to reading, math and the pursuit of scientific knowledge,” O’Connor and Glenn wrote.

And civics could bring much needed civility back to our political discourse.


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