Civics: glue for our union

Study of the ideas that bind us together gets renewed attention

Posted on July 2, 2006

The syndicated comic strip "Frank & Ernest" may have been a little too frank. A few days ago, the strip's main characters were depicted examining what appears to be a museum exhibit about the three branches of government. "These days the separation of powers just means they go to separate corners between rounds," one character says to the other. It's a joke, but of the sort that some of our nation's Founding Fathers might not find funny if they were around to celebrate this Fourth of July. The trouble is that many Americans really don't know what the separation of powers means. Or many of the other basic facts about civics that used to be drilled into children's heads at an early age. According to a Harris Interactive survey sponsored by the American Bar Association last year, only 55 percent of Americans could correctly identify the three branches of government. More than one in five survey respondents (22 percent) thought the correct answers were Republican, Democrat and independent. (In case you're blushing a bit now, the real answers are: executive, legislative and judicial.) For a variety of reasons, civics education isn't being taught in classrooms any more, at least not the way it used to be. And that has sparked concern, in Tennessee and elsewhere, among people who believe good citizenship isn't something that happens by accident. "We have a whole generation of civic leaders who haven't had this civics education," said Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association. The shift away from civics education has been subtle and gradual. Nissa Dahlin-Brown, assistant director of the University of Tennessee's Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, said that students in the 1970s often had to take at least three civics classes prior to graduating from high school. "Today, some states require none," Brown said. In Memphis City Schools, the last civics courses were taught in 1996. However, students are still required to take one semester of American government, usually in their junior or senior year of high school, said Lawrence Moaton, the school district's professional development coordinator for K-12 social studies. In Shelby County Schools, a required civics course was phased out in the mid-1990s. Xavier Wynn, the county school system's former instructional supervisor for social studies, said American government is still offered as a one-semester elective. But Wynn said that course doesn't place much emphasis on local or state government structure, or on the things students need to know in order to become good citizens. "Because of the fast pace of our society, it (civics education) is one of the things that has been lost," Wynn said. Educators place part of the blame on standardized testing requirements, which force them to focus heavily on math, science and reading skills. Also, to some degree, the academic requirements of colleges and universities influence course offerings at the high school level. But U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., traces the decline of history and civics education back to the 1950s. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Alexander said, public schools saw "Americanizing" the nation's vast population of immigrants as a fundamental part of their mission, in addition to teaching native and foreign-born students the three Rs. In the decades after World War II, controversial subjects such as McCarthyism, the Vietnam war and African-American history made many educators skittish about discussing U.S. values and ideals, Alexander said. Alexander, whose first speech on the Senate floor in 2003 dealt with the decline of history and civics education, believes the current trend needs to be reversed to help Americans maintain a cohesive culture. "We unite around ideas rather than around our race or ancestry," Alexander said. "So it's important that we know what those ideas are." There are a number of programs around the country intended to combat civic ignorance, but often it's up to schools or individual students to find them and get involved. For example, the Center for Civic Education sponsors Project Citizen, a program in which elementary school students identify a particular problem -- for example, a dangerous intersection that needs a traffic light. The students work through the steps needed to bring about change, such as lobbying their local government leaders. Janis Kyser, director of law-related education for the Tennessee Bar Association, said participating in programs such as Project Citizen can make kids feel more connected to their communities, thus reducing the odds that they'll become destructive or violent. "This is about kids having a voice in their lives," Kyser said. "You can't imagine what an impact that has." Other changes may soon be in the works. Last month, Gov. Phil Bredesen signed a bill that calls for a commission on civics education. The commission's members are expected to study the state of civics education in Tennessee, then maybe suggest some reforms to the General Assembly. One possible recommendation might be to require more civics classes to be taught at all school districts throughout the state. Earlier this year, Florida legislators passed a comprehensive education reform bill that requires all middle school students to take at least one semester of state and federal government and civics education. Before the bill passed, Florida's high school students were already required to take at least one semester of government. But Francine Walker, public information director for the Florida Bar, which backed the legislation, said delaying civics education until high school was viewed as "too little, too late." Although educational reforms often take a while to yield results, Alexander is optimistic about the prospects for reinvigorating learning about history and civics. He has successfully sponsored legislation setting up summer academies for teaching students and teachers history and civics, and has a bill pending in the Senate that would authorize a pilot study on how well history is being taught at schools in selected states. If young people are properly introduced to civics and history, Alexander believes many will be hooked by the subject matter. And over time, that could mean our nation's collective civic knowledge won't lend itself so easily to a good punchline. "I think it's fixable," Alexander said. "The best reason is that U.S. history is not like taking medicine. It's like eating a candy bar. It's actually a lot of fun." Blake Fontenay is an editorial writer for The Commercial Appeal. Contact him at 529-2386. More info: A Harris Interactive poll on civics education conducted in July 2005 for the American Bar Association found that many respondents would benefit from a refresher course in U.S. government and constitutional principles. Highlights of the survey's findings: 55 percent of the respondents correctly identified the three branches of government -- legislative, executive and judicial. More than a fifth of those surveyed, 22 percent, identified the three branches as Republican, Democrat and Independent. 82 percent of the respondents said the concept of separation of powers is "very important" or "important." But only 45 percent correctly identified the meaning of "separation of powers" as "Congress, the president and the federal courts each have different responsibilities." 64 percent of the respondents correctly identified the meaning of "checks and balances" as "a division of power among the branches of federal government that prevents any one of them from going beyond their constitutional authority." Just under half of the respondents, 48 percent, correctly identified a key responsibility of the judicial branch of government as "determining how existing law applies to the facts of a case." Almost 3 in 10 respondents, 29 percent, said the judicial branch's role is to "advise the president and Congress about the legality of an action they intend to take in the future."