Saving Democracy with Civic Literacy in America 101

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image by / Emrah Turudu

This article is one of several on fixing education. For more, readPutting the Public Back in Public Education,The People’s Professor, and the online exclusiveEducational 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.

At the same time, we stopped engaging with one another in civil society. We withdrew from a broader vision of what makes us American and started focusing more on what makes us different. We became more and more isolated, and more and more disconnected from our constitutional conscience.

Concern over the decline in civic literacy has prompted some school systems to reintroduce civics-like courses over the past 10 years, but these efforts have been sporadic, uneven, and obstructed by other priorities. For example, the current emphasis on science and math, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently noted, “has effectively squeezed out civics education because there is no testing for that anymore and no funding for that.” This is not related to the cracking of the American consensus; in this era of No Child Left Behind, everyone is left behind when it comes to the unquantifiable learning necessary for civic literacy.

Complacency is now the main problem. Most Americans have absolutely no concern about whether the nation will endure. “Of course the republic will survive, how can it be otherwise? We have always been free, and we will always be free,” I have heard educated, politically conscious people say.

For most Americans, the connection between civic literacy and a healthy democracy is only rhetorical. If they were pressed, they would not know or appreciate what civic literacy means, nor would they concede that what they don’t know does hurt them and all of us. But it does.

Scholars Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter detail this point in their 1996 book What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters. They find that civic literacy provides meaningful understanding and support for a number of constitutional values, including compromise and tolerance, and promotes meaningful political participation. They also argue that “a better-informed citizenry places important limitations on the ability of public officials, interest groups, and other elites to manipulate public opinion and act in ways contrary to the public interest.”

The opposite is also true: Civic ignorance denies us the context through which to understand and measure the conduct of our elected officials. It unleashes our natural instincts to measure governmental processes and decisions in the present tense alone, through the screens of our own self-interests. It curtails our ability to consider what might be good for a larger community or for the country. This is the path to democratic decline–and we are on it.

Take, for example, the war on terrorism and the Iraq War. After 9/11, Americans looked, as they have in the past, to the president for protection. And President George W. Bush, as have earlier presidents, responded. But his response was based on a unique claim of unprecedented constitutional powers to engage our troops, wiretap our citizens, and torture our prisoners.

While the excessiveness of this view roiled even some of the administration’s own loyalists, there was no retreat from it. There was no need to retreat. Congress did not assert itself against this claim, in part because it would not take such a confrontational step without broad public support, and Americans have not been forceful in demanding that Congress protect our constitutional system. While there are various reasons for the public acquiescence, it is hard to posit that civic ignorance doesn’t rank high among them.

The drop-off in civic literacy has also fueled the erosion of the national political consensus that drove the soaring successes of postwar America. During that period the federal government grew from a star in a far-off galaxy to the daily light of our political life. As Richard Nixon noted in his 1970 State of the Union address, “Ours [is] . . . a society of large expectations. Government helped to generate these expectations.” It undertook to meet them by responding to the consensus demands for a number of economic, civil, and environmental rights through, for example, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and a broad expansion of environmental protections.

But by 1970 this grand consensus was only a memory. Its dissolution came about for many reasons, but it is no accident that it coincided with the decline in civic education and civic literacy. In fact, the two have driven each other–political dissolution made it harder to speak about American civics, but the lack of discussion guaranteed that Americans, particularly students, would enter the world with a dimmer conception of American life and a shakier commitment to a community beyond their narrow self-interests.

The result is a culture and a government that can make only halting progress. Lacking a deep sense of civic life, we demand things for ourselves and our groups without an appreciation of the give-and-take inherent in American politics.

The goal of civic literacy is to continuously reinvigorate our democracy through the promotion of meaningful civic engagement. It requires knowledge of the Constitution, its history, and its values, as they have evolved. We have to understand the fragility of our democracy and our obligation to maintain it. The only place to start is with the public schools. Public schools have an obligation to teach children about our history and civic institutions, including the Constitution.

What would an effective civic literacy program look like? This is not a road untraveled. Many groups have spent considerable time exploring the question, and they all agree that civic education must start early. Many of the lessons we need to learn from the Constitution–participation, compromise, tolerance–must become part of our attitudes and conscience in order to have real impact. The sooner the effort begins and the more often it is repeated, the better it works.

Accordingly, sometime in fourth or fifth grade students should take their first civics-oriented course. This course should also include some basics of American history; call it the American Constitution I. It should introduce the structural details of the Constitution and their significance, as well as the basics of the Declaration of Independence and the visions that inspired these documents. The course should also refer to relevant current events to capture students’ attention.

More sophisticated versions of this same course should be required again in middle school and high school–American Constitution II and III. The essential goal is a deep understanding and appreciation of our Constitution, but the courses should also provide students with the capacity for critical examination of the system. A line of discussion might be the value of the Electoral College today, or the relationship between the First Amendment and campaign finance reform.

Starting in middle school and continuing through high school, students should also be required to take classes in current events, at least four semesters over this period. Here the goal is not just discussion of today’s events, but using current events as a means of giving life to the Constitution. A discussion of the Iraq War could be used to talk about war powers, executive powers, legislative powers, separation of powers, decision-making processes, and the role of the courts. Schools should also encourage and aid student participation in extracurricular campus or outside organizations, such as internships and service clubs. While constitutional values must be taught in the classroom, they can be experienced better outside it.

Implementation of this or any such program will take hard work. Complacency about our democracy is its greatest enemy and, ironically, overcoming it requires the very commitment to civic literacy that our complacency obstructs.

America, unlike most of the world’s nations, is not a country defined by blood or belief. Rather, it is an idea, or a set of ideas, about freedom and opportunity. It is this set of ideas that binds us together as Americans. That’s why these ideas have to be taught. Our understanding and appreciation of them is how we grade our civic literacy. We are now failing, and heading toward what the philosopher Michael Sandel has called a “storyless condition,” in which “there is no continuity between present and past, and therefore no responsibility, and therefore no possibility for acting together to govern ourselves.” We need civic education to reverse this course.

Excerpted from Democracy (Fall 2008), a journal that aims to build a vibrant and vital progressivism for the 21st century;

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