Editorial: Civic illiteracy is a threat to American’s democracy

Posted on September 21, 2005

The framers of the U.S. Constitution instinctively knew this nation's bold experiment in democracy would only work if its citizens were knowledgeable decision-makers. But, as a host of national studies makes all too clear, the increasing lack of civic literacy and civic engagement is a deeply disturbing trend that threatens the very basis of democracy itself. A lack of knowledge about the workings of government, including its processes and institutions, cuts across all age, gender and social strata, but the problem seems particularly acute among the nation's young. That's something Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., wants to change. He's become so concerned that school children are not receiving an adequate grounding in the Constitution that last year he inserted a provision into an education appropriation bill that requires any school receiving federal funding to devote some time teaching about that document. Byrd's bill designates Sept. 17 - the anniversary of the Constitution's signing in 1787 - as "Constitution Day.'' Since that falls on a Saturday this year, most of the nation's schools have announced plans to recognize the event during the regular school week with a variety of grade-appropriate special instruction about the historic document. The need for extra civic education is achingly obvious. A recent poll embarrassingly revealed that the average American adult cannot name the rights guaranteed in the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution and only a bare majority could name the three branches of government. According to a 2001 National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) report by the U.S. Department of Education, 75 percent of fourth-graders could not correctly identify the three parts of the federal government out of four possible choices and 73 percent could not identify the Constitution from among four choices as the document that contains the basic rules used to run the federal government. Unfortunately, the findings of the NAEP survey are not an aberration. A host of reports shows most students are dangerously ignorant of some of the most basic concepts of American civic life. Earlier this year, a massive survey of 112,000 students, 8,000 teachers and 500 principals conducted by the University of Connecticut concluded that a majority of high school students are apathetic toward, and ignorant of, Americans' First Amendment rights. When read the First Amendment, which states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances,'' nearly three-fourths of students admitted they were either uncertain how they felt about it while others said they simply took it for granted. And that was the good news. The survey found 75 percent of students mistakenly believed that burning the American flag is illegal. Half those surveyed said the government has the right to censor the Internet and more than a third characterized the First Amendment as going too far in its guarantees of religion, public speech and the press. The Education Commission of the States has found that although 41 states require students to learn about government, civics or citizenship in some form, only five - Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and New York - require a high school exit exam in civics or related topics. Tennessee is one of just 22 states that offer standardized tests in social studies in any form and is one of just 13 states to include social studies in school accountability ratings. Obviously a single "Constitution Day'' once a year in the nation's public schools will not fundamentally change all that much, but at least it draws attention to a pervasive problem. More substantial by far is a bill promulgated by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and signed into law by President Bush last year called the American History and Civics Act. The legislation, based on summer programs created by Alexander when he was governor of Tennessee, seeks to fund similar summer academies in history and civics for both teachers and students. The presidential academies for teachers should be ready for the summer of 2006, and Alexander's office is working to secure funding for the congressional academies, designed for students, the following summer. Alexander has also introduced another piece of legislation with his colleague across the aisle, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., that seeks to assess and improve students' knowledge of American history. That bill would provide for improved testing of American history and civics so that best practices can be identified and promoted. The animating idea behind Byrd's "Constitution Day'' and Alexander's history and civics academies rests on the common sense principle that education about our nation's history and its civic institutions should not be incidental, but, rather, central to the purpose of public education. As we approach the 218th birthday of that extraordinary document, it's altogether fitting that we rediscover and recommit ourselves to that canon of seminal concepts that makes America exceptional. Our ability to intelligently defend and preserve what we as a nation hold dear depends on our knowledge and understanding of the ideas and values that bind us together in a common civic culture.