Policymakers | General Education

Our Opinion: Less circus; more civics

Let's make knowledge cool again
TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT   |  September 18, 2009 by Editorial

Constitution Day has come and gone—it is on Sept. 17 each year—and with little fanfare, even from among the true believers who cite all manner of supposed rights and banishments that appear somewhere in the Constitution and conveniently support their rhetoric.

It was comic Jay Leno who observed from his countless “Jaywalking” interviews that most Americans know nothing about the basic principles of the Constitution—beginning with the routine error of calling our system of government a democracy when it is, in fact, a republic.

We have 364 days in a year, however, to catch up with Congress’ goal of getting every public educational institutional in the country to hold an educational program on the Constitution each Sept. 17.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s latest report on higher education found that none of the nation’s top 20 universities, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, requires a broad course in government or American history.

The ACTA is a Washington-based academic group whose causes include stronger general education requirements in traditional subjects such as history, literature and the hard sciences. Its 2010 project went on to identify seven subjects—composition, literature, foreign languages, economics, mathematics, natural or physical science in addition to government and history—that it considers essential to a strong liberal arts education.

Though Florida State University doesn’t require a government or history course to graduate, it was, out of 100 ranked universities, given a B for its overall standards for an undergraduate education. Only 7 of the 100 universities made the ACTA’s “A” list. Florida A&M was not among the 100 universities surveyed, and while the University of Florida was, it ranked only a C.

This omission of teaching basic civics in college should not be too surprising, since it is also considered not awfully important by the state of Florida, which does not yet emphasize a knowledge of government or civics in its standard-bearer scholastic test: the FCAT.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and former Florida Congressman Lou Frey launched a bipartisan effort to improve civic education in Florida, releasing a report in 2007 with five policy recommendations to strengthen civic education. It focused on the K-12 levels, where they suggest that civics education is now treated as “an afterthought.”

However, without more emphasis, they said, “Students will not be transformed into active citizens without teachers who are properly trained and empowered. We must make civics instruction an essential part of teacher education at Florida’s colleges and universities and help teachers already in the classroom enhance their civics teaching skills and methods.”

In today’s world, where public debates on issues ranging from global warming to health care reform are so passionate and opinionated, it would also be a great thing if more of the arguing was done with a better understanding of civics—not to mention more civility, and less circus.


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