As Fourth of July nears, here’s something to think about.
“There is a crisis in American civic education,” the American Council of Trustees and Alumni says in a 2016 report.” Survey after survey shows that recent college graduates are alarmingly ignorant of America’s history and heritage. They cannot identify the term lengths of members of Congress, the substance of the First Amendment, or the origin of the separation of powers. They do not know the Father of the Constitution, and nearly 10 percent say that Judith Sheindlin — “Judge Judy” — is on the Supreme Court.”
In 2015, the nonprofit education advocacy group commissioned the research firm GfK to survey recent U.S. college graduates and the public at large about their understanding of American history and government. The questions were drawn from standard high school civics lessons.
The group describes the results as “abysmal.” For example, among college grads, only 28 percent could identify James Madison as the Father of the Constitution, 60 percent don’t know any of the steps necessary to ratify a constitutional amendment, half don’t know how long the terms of representatives and senators are, and 40 percent don’t know only Congress has the power to declare war. Those results are only slightly better than Americans at large.
A basic understanding of American history and civics goes beyond book smarts to something deeper. This body of knowledge forms the foundation of what it means to be an American. To fulfill our role as citizens, we need to do more than just have the good fortune of being born here. We ought to share a lineage – a common understanding and adherence to some basic concepts and principles — and take the responsibility for passing it along to those who come afterward.
Why is that important?
“America’s founders were united in their belief that our government requires engaged, well-informed citizens committed to the practice of self-government,” the American Council says in its report on the poll results. “Benjamin Franklin, when asked what form of government the Constitutional Convention had established, famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” And Thomas Jefferson observed, “A nation that expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, expects what never was and never will be.”
E.D. Hirsch Jr., author of the 1987 bestseller “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” says our individual success and the health of our democracy both depend on it. Without a common base of knowledge, we’re condemned to what he calls the “powerlessness of incomprehension,” unable to connect the disparate bits of information necessary to understand what’s going on around us and unable to participate fully in civic life.
Anybody remember these words?
“Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. …
“Our concern, however, goes well beyond matters such as industry and commerce. It also includes the intellectual, moral and spiritual strengths of our people, which knit together the very fabric of our society. The people of the United States need to know that individuals in our society who do not possess the levels of skill, literacy and training essential to this new era will be effectively disenfranchised, not simply from the material rewards that accompany competent performance, but also from the chance to participate fully in our national life. …
“For our country to function, citizens must be able to reach some common understandings on complex issues, often on short notice and on the basis of conflicting or incomplete evidence.”
“A Nation At Risk” a landmark report by President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, called for sweeping reforms in what and how American schools teach their children. It was issued 35 years ago, in 1983. It might as well have been written yesterday.