Trustees | General Education

Headlines reflect woeful failings of civic education

INDYSTAR   |  November 3, 2017 by Andrea Neal

James Madison and the Founding Fathers believed an informed citizenry was the chief protection of the republican government they had created. Madison stated, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Sad to report, the latest Constitution Day survey shows Madison’s advice goes largely unheeded in the age of Twitter, 20-second sound bites and fake news. The 2017 survey, released Sept. 12 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, found that:

More than a third of Americans (37 percent) can’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.

Only a quarter of Americans (26 percent) can name all three branches of government.

More than a third (39 percent) would support allowing Congress to stop the news media from reporting on national security absent government approval, a clear violation of the First Amendment.

“Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are. The fact that many don’t is worrisome,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Center.

Nor is it what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they devised our democratic, constitutional republic. As envisioned by Washington, Madison and Franklin, people were to call the shots in our system of government. They were to vote for representatives who would be accountable to them and promote the common good. 

But how can we hold government accountable when so many are so disengaged?

The system is not functioning properly. Partisans in Washington are mired in gridlock over President Trump’s tax, health care and immigration proposals. Public admiration for Congress is near its historic low. An October Gallup Poll showed an 80 percent disapproval rate for Congress and 58 percent for the President.

And many people think their vote doesn’t matter. In the latest Indiana Civic Health Index (2015), Indiana ranked 37th in the rate of citizens who are registered to vote — 69.2 percent, an improvement over previous years but still lower than the national average.

“Investing in education, including civic education, leads to higher levels of civic participation for virtually all indicators of civic health,” said the report by former Congressman Lee Hamilton and retired Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard. “Our challenge will be to devise ways to improve our civic health, build on our unique strengths and interest and recognize the value of education to building strong communities.”

It is essential that the K-12 education system train young citizens in the people’s business of government. Although this is important for all age groups and incomes, civic illiteracy is especially pronounced among the least educated, the poor and minorities. 

Families that make above $75,000 per year are twice as likely to vote — and six times as likely to be politically active — as the poor. This civic achievement gap is a reflection of the overall education achievement gap we suffer in our schools.

The problem is not limited to the least educated. At both K-12 and college levels, diminishing class time is spent on the liberal arts that prepare young citizens to be intelligent members of political society. In Indiana, it’s the rare exception for students to get more than a smattering of civics in the K-8 grades. In high school the requirement is a year of American history and one semester each of government and economics.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni issued a report in 2016 titled, “A Crisis in Civic Education.” It reached its conclusion after a study of 1,100 liberal arts colleges and universities found that only a handful — 18 percent — require students to take even one survey course in American history or government before they graduate. From the ACTA report:

“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 think that Judith Sheindlin —‘Judge Judy’— is on the Supreme Court.”

What are the consequences of this lack of civic knowledge? Let’s start with the worst-case scenario: Our democratic republic is no more. 

Being a good citizen is a job, and if Americans are not well trained they will do the job poorly. Citizens don’t just vote of course. They serve in the military and on school boards and liquor licensing commissions and police review boards and zoning bodies.

Benjamin Franklin said, “This will be the best security for maintaining our liberties. A nation of well-informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the religion of ignorance that tyranny begins.”

The militant Antifa (anti-fascist) movement is a reflection of the ignorance that Franklin referenced. On the morning of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Antifa members lit trash cans on fire, threw rocks and bottles at police, and tossed pieces of pavement through store windows. Self-described as socialists, anarchists and communists, Antifa protesters have continued to show up on college campuses to protest conservative speakers and to shut down voices with which they disagree.

The protests themselves are not the problem. Demonstrations and civil disobedience are legitimate forms of political speech. What’s worrisome is that many of the Antifa protesters interviewed by media are unable to articulate what they’re protesting.

One wonders if they first tried writing a letter to the editor or to their congressman, or if they even know who their congressman is. Many are just caught up in our culture’s increasingly inflammatory approach to public affairs. Or maybe they just see it as the closest thing to being on reality TV.

Civic education must become of equal priority to job preparation, which is the trend du jour of the public school system. It is the school’s job to coach students to read the newspaper, attend community meetings and write their representatives so they can vote wisely when they turn 18. 

It is the school’s job to give children the opportunities to practice self-governance — so that when their time comes, they will have the ability and the desire to run for office or hold government jobs to serve the public good.

Finally, it is the job of all of us — family, church and school — to cultivate well-informed men and women who will prize the rights God has given us, as Ben Franklin so wisely said.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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