info 08.1.16

Civics in Septic Shock

[We ran this back in March and rerun it today as a way of paying respect to the Khan family.]

We are not in a teachable moment in this country and we won't be until we treat the septic shock that threatens the body politic. When we recover, however, longterm care should include reexamining the faded role of civics education in the nation's classrooms.

It would be naive, of course, to think that improving civics education alone will solve the country's most pernicious problems or address the anger, anxiety and hatred that is combusting during this presidential campaign. Yet failing to improve civics education will make a high-functioning democracy almost unattainable.

Consider this. The 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that only 23% of eighth graders nationwide have a proficient understanding of civics. This is what they mean by proficient:

Eighth-grade students performing at the Proficient level should understand and be able to explain purposes that government should serve. These students should have a good understanding of differences between government and civil society and of the importance of the rule of law. They should recognize discrepancies between American ideals and reality and be able to describe continuing efforts to address them. They should understand the separation and sharing of powers among branches of government and between federal and state governments, and they should be able to explain how citizens influence government. They should be able to describe events within the United States and other countries that have international consequences.

In New York State, there is a civics Learning Standard: "Students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of the necessity for establishing governments; the governmental system of the United States and other nations; the United States Constitution; the basic civic values of American constitutional democracy; and the roles, rights, and responsibilities of citizenship, including avenues of participation."

As a country, we are clearly failing to meet those standards. The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania survey from 2014 demonstrates the alarming results of a poor civics education.

64% of American adults could not name all three branches of government.

35% could not name a single branch.

To the question "Who has the final responsibility to determine if a law is constitutional or not? The president, Congress, or the Supreme Court?"
38% gave the wrong answer or did not know.

There are organizations committed to reviving civics discourse, including the Civics Renewal Network, iCivics (founded by Sandra Day O'Connor), the Edward M. Kennedy Institute and the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. The Campaign is currently urging Congress to provide funding for social studies grants, which would include improving civics instruction. The icitzen app is also a promising idea.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

Wooster Street

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