Saving Democracy with Civic Literacy in America 101

Most Americans would fail a citizenship exam. That has to change.


| January-February 2009


This article is one of several on fixing education. For more, read  Putting the Public Back in Public Education  ,  The People’s Professor  , and the online exclusive  Educational Success: Stories of Innovation from the Utne Library .

Americans have always considered civic literacy critical for a thriving democracy. “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people,” noted James Madison, the father of the Constitution and fourth president, in 1810. A 1997 survey by the National Constitution Center found that 84 percent of Americans believed that for the government to work as intended, citizens needed to be informed and active. Three-quarters of those polled claimed that the Constitution mattered in their daily lives.

Yet, despite this nod to civic literacy, too few Americans could answer the questions on the U.S. citizenship test or similar questions. Forty-one percent of respondents to the National Constitution Center survey were not aware that there were three branches of government, and 62 percent couldn’t name them; 33 percent couldn’t even name one. Over half of those answering the survey did not know the length of a term for a member of the Senate or House of Representatives. Another study by the center found that while 71 percent of teens knew that “www” starts an online web address, only 35 percent knew that “We the people” are the opening words of the Constitution.

Things weren’t always this way; civics and current events courses were once common, even required, in American schools. But since the late 1960s, civic education in the country has declined. The main culprit in this sad tale is our educational system.

Since the late 1960s, fewer and fewer schools require civics courses, and fewer include civic components in their American history courses. This is particularly true in schools with less-privileged student bodies. A Mills College study by Professors Joseph Kahne and Ellen Middaugh points out that students in these schools are half as likely as students in wealthy school districts to learn, for example, how laws are made and how Congress works.

Several reasons account for this dangerous departure from past practices. One was a concern, beginning in the 1970s, that civic education equaled indoctrination and that civic pedagogy somehow conflicted with individual rights. Teaching about our constitutional democracy was seen, unfortunately, as imposing values on students. This was particularly true in the late 1960s, after the breakup of the grand postwar consensus and during the struggles of many groups to find their own group identities. Another reason was the view of political scientists that civics was “a low-level subject matter” and that “students learned nothing from civics courses,” according to Professors Richard Niemi and Julia Smith.

DAVID HOWE
8/21/2013 11:24:33 PM

If there was resistance from the 'left' against civics education, imagine now the resistance for the right for any pedagogy that promotes a critical look at the political system or history in general.