Trustees | General Education

Civics crucial to curriculum

PITT NEWS   |  June 1, 2016 by Marlo Safi

“We The People” are the beneficiaries of a constitution that protects our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — words that every American should have memorized.

But millennial college students are approaching the frontline to guard those liberties with an artillery of ignorance, not insight.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an independent, nonprofit organization committed to university accountability and academic freedom, released a study in January 2016 that would make James Madison and Thomas Jefferson rip the powdered wigs off their heads.

But most college students don’t even know exactly what those two people did.

The study reported that 60 percent of college students identified Jefferson as the father of the Constitution, despite Jefferson having been a U.S. ambassador to France at the time of its writing. Only 20.6 percent of respondents correctly gave the label to Madison.

The study also reported 60 percent of college students didn’t know any of the requirements for ratifying a constitutional amendment, and 40 percent didn’t know that Congress has the power to declare war.

The failure of high schools to instill their students with even a rudimentary understanding of civic processes is nothing new, but civic ignorance has seeped into most of our universities as well. Classes such as “History of Jazz” and “Russian Fairy Tales” fulfill general education requirements, yet civic education courses such as “Constitutional Law” and “Civic Liberties and the Constitution” do not.

While all Pitt students have the option of taking “American Presidency” or “Electoral Behavior Democratic Process” as a class to fulfill a social science requirement, not every student will choose to enroll in these classes when there are dozens of other options.

Given the lack of civic education in public schools, it is disingenuous of colleges to assume the students they are admitting into their programs are literate in civics. Thus, it is their duty to not simply provide civics classes as options, but as requirements for students. General education requirements supposedly make us well-rounded citizens of society. Civic education would allow us to be active members of our nation. We require a foreign, non-western culture requirement, why not a requirement about learning how to navigate the institutions already surrounding us?

We can’t expect to overcome a civic recession when the classes that teach students vital information about the laws, politics and history of our country are just one option among many.

The idea that we are to find human fulfillment in our liberties and the struggles to sustain them is the premise of our Bill of Rights and the unalienable rights within it.

If universities claim to pride themselves on providing this fulfillment through academic enlightenment, they have to understand the disservice they are doing to their students.

Civic education is indispensable — whether you are a biology major or a political science major, an American citizen or a foreign citizen in the United States for schooling. We all have to live under the same laws and should understand how the government we pay taxes to operates. Furthermore, if international students would like to obtain citizenship after their studies, taking civic courses would prepare them for the civic test they must pass.

You should know the U.S. Supreme Court case that establishes your right to free speech on school property, or that in Pennsylvania you have the right to carry a concealed firearm with a permit at any location that isn’t a school, court house or casino.

Regardless of what you study, you will be a taxpayer. As such, you should have an understanding of the social security and Medicare programs your dollars are going towards. We’re currently approaching the end of the Supreme Court’s term, and you should understand the effects of the court rulings on our lives. You should know the importance of protecting your rights when a cop comes to your door without a warrant and wants to search your property.

While legislation and taxes may not seem glamorous to the majority of students, the abuse and taxation without representation that an uneducated populace attracts isn’t either.

We may brood over general education classes and why we perceive as them being useless, but civics education is an investment that goes beyond creating well-rounded students — it creates informed citizens.

During an election year at Pitt, civic engagement appears at its peak. There are Bernie buttons and bumper stickers as far as the eye can see. But according to a study the Reason Foundation did in 2014, our beloved campus socialists most likely don’t understand what socialism is.

According to the survey, only 16 percent of millennials could accurately define what socialism is, while 45 percent of young adults claim to support Bernie Sanders. The same survey showed that when tax rates are not explicit, 54 percent of millennials favor a larger government with more services and 43 percent prefer a smaller government with fewer services. However, support flipped and 57 percent favored smaller government once the surveyors disclosed the tax rate, suggesting the participants didn’t even know a larger government would require higher taxes.

This concerns capitalist fangirls like me who fear that poorly informed millennials could bring socialist sentiment into our country. But self-proclaimed socialists aren’t the only people we have to worry about this election season — Trumpsters who haven’t just experienced a lack of civic education, but in most cases, no post-secondary education at all, are setting records for voter turnout in states such as Delaware. Unlike Sanders, those uninformed voters could propel Trump into the White House.

When we become too sure of our country’s robustness or long-term viability to the point of complacency, we succumb to ignorance, and that ignorance makes us susceptible to the sort of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes that have killed millions.The information these classes teach you doesn’t just matter for one semester or even one exam — it matter for as long as you are an American prepared to participate in a democratic republic.

As the Constitutional Convention of 1787 came to a close, Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall after a day of deliberation and a woman approached him to ask what type of government the convention had established. Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

“We The People” have the responsibility of keeping our republic and forming a more perfect union, and it’s the duty of our universities to make that a priority.


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