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A Plea for Civics Education

2011 January 14
by Jacqueline Moss

Civics used to be a class taught to most children in the United States.  Now, it has been incorporated into history classes, and is only a brief part of most history curricula.  Civics is the “study or science of the privileges and obligations of citizens.”  Most of us, when we are taught civics, are taught about our form of government (which is a Representative Democracy), and a few other forms of government, like Dictatorship, Aristocracy, Absolute Monarchy, Constitutional Monarchy, and Anarchism.  Most of the information we receive doesn’t stick (I forgot that Aristocracy and both forms of Monarchy often coexist but don’t necessarily have to), and we reach adulthood with a vague sense of other forms of government, and an only slightly more informed idea about how our own government works.

It is often bemoaned that we, as a group of citizens, don’t vote in the numbers we should, and aren’t well-informed–or don’t care to be well-informed–about the workings of our government, at all levels.  And its true.  I think most people take the responsibility of citizenship far less seriously than it should be taken.  And I think a big part of the reason for that is because we are no longer formally taught civics.

Civics shouldn’t be a cursory part of the History curriculum taught sporadically throughout our Elementary, Middle, and High Schools.  Maybe if it wasn’t, we would care more about our citizenship, feel more of a sense of responsibility to care about and participate in our government.  How can we value our government if we do not fully understand how it works, and how citizenship works.  We too easily forget that citizenship isn’t just the granting of rights by a government to its citizens, it is also includes “the duties, obligations, and functions of a citizen.”

Government has a responsibility towards us and we, as citizens, have a responsibility to our government.  The relationship which citizens have with the government is a social contract, one that is mutually beneficial to both, and it doesn’t function properly if citizens do not do their part.  Voter turnout for Presidential elections (which almost always has higher turnout than local or congressional elections) hasn’t been over 80% since 1876.   And since the turn of the last century it has mostly hovered between 60%-40% (we had a high of 65%  in 1904 and 1908).  Do you think 60%-40% of the population voting for our President is good enough?  I don’t.  If we were formally taught civics, perhaps more of us would know that some countries have compulsory voting, and maybe we would taking voting a bit more seriously.

Of course, passing a law to require that all citizens vote is not a cure-all for the general epidemic of apathy that seems to afflict many citizens.  We have to teach people to care about their government, and the best way to do that is to educate people on government, citizenship, and the roles and responsibilities of both.  A love of democracy and freedom and an appreciation/understanding of government and citizenship is not innate.  It has to be taught.

Last year, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI, which has a politically conservative bent) published a study entitled Our Fading Heritage: Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions.  The ISI report found that 71% of the people surveyed failed a basic civics test, and that “fewer than half of all Americans can name all three branches of government, a minimal requirement for understanding America’s constitutional system.”  Come on people, we should all be able to name the three branches of our own government.  I bet more people can name the entire cast of Jersey Shore, and that’s just abysmal.  Here are some additional highlights of the ISI survey:

  • Only 55% know that Congress shares authority over U.S. foreign policy with the president. Almost a quarter incorrectly believe Congress shares this power with the United Nations
  • Only 27% know the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States.
  • Less than one in five know that the phrase “a wall of separation” between church and state comes from a letter by Thomas Jefferson. Almost half incorrectly believe it can be found in the Constitution.

Public figures from Rush Limbaugh to Richard Dreyfuss to retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor have all voiced their beliefs that civics lessons should be more than just a blip in the History curriculum.  Civics needs to be taught because people need to understand how government works, and what the role of the citizen is.  We need to understand our democracy in order to fully participate in it, and we need to understand other forms of government so that we can be good global citizens as well.  A Representative Democracy cannot function at its best if its citizens and elected officials do not have a complete grasp of how government and citizenship works.  By not comprehensively teaching civics, we are doing a great disservice to our country, our government, and our Democracy.  But you can do something.  Don’t wait around for our educational curriculum to change.  Educate yourself, educate your friends, your family, your children.  Learn our history, I promise it really isn’t boring.  Government is run by those who show up, so show up!  Don’t complain about our government if you can’t even be bothered to educate yourself about how it works, and the real power you have to affect change.

One Response
  1. palio permalink
    January 14, 2011

    Thank you for emphasizing the obligations we as citizens owe to each other, as opposed to the reverse (John Kennedy said this better…). The lack of interest in participation is related to a feeling of impotence; civics education is part of the antidote.

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