David Adler: Efforts to boost civic knowledge deserve support

July 17, 2014 

David Adler

The national celebration of Independence Day - marked by parades, picnics and fireworks, not to mention political speeches long on rhetoric and short on content - was characterized in words displayed on countless banners and floats: "keep our freedom." But that trumpet call seems increasingly meaningless - and unattainable - in light of disturbing studies revealing a lack of knowledge among the citizenry of the civics platform on which our nation was founded, and the tools necessary to preserve constitutional government. America needs a remedy, and fast.

Civic literacy is defined as a functional knowledge of the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the content and purposes of the U.S. Constitution, a familiarity with the powers and operations of the three branches of the federal government, and a working grasp of the implications of defining moments in American history. The alarming deficit in civic literacy threatens the future of the republic. This is not a partisan position or conclusion. Studies and assessments conducted by a variety of organizations, including the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISA), document a widespread lack of knowledge of politics and government, alienation and apathy, and low levels of civic engagement.

The results of a recent civics quiz conducted by the ISA were grim. The average score on the 33-question exam among the 2,508 Americans who took it in 2008, was 49 percent. The questions were not difficult. For example, respondents were asked to identify the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence. The performance on the ISI quiz confirmed results of other independent organizations probing dimensions of our civic deficit.

In the last few years, surveys and assessments have disclosed a stunning lack of knowledge of basic facts about our governmental system. Sixty-four percent of Americans can't name the three branches of government. Most cannot name their own members of the U.S House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate. Nearly half don't know that states have two senators. Fifty-four percent can't name a single U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Only a bare majority can name even one basic purpose of the Constitution. More citizens can name "American Idol" judges than can name the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Sixty-one percent can name at least one "American Idol" judge, but only 15 percent know that John Roberts is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Preservation of government "of, by and for the people," requires more knowledge than many Americans possess. Meaningful participation in politics can't be guided by ideological passions alone. Americans need civics tools to understand, critique and criticize governmental programs, policies and laws if they are to perform their basic duties as citizens. Our nation has rightly acknowledged the urgent need to vigorously pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. We need to summon the same sense of urgency to climb out of the civic literacy deficit.

Remedies are at hand, if federal governmental leaders will but grasp them. On April 29, the U.S. Senate passed Senate Resolution 427, expressing the sense of the Senate on the importance of effective civic education programs in our nation's schools. The measure is now before the House, and it deserves the support of Reps. Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador. In addition, Congress should restore full funding to the Democracy for Education Act which had funded, for roughly 25 years, the admirable education programs of the Center for Civic Education, an institution that enjoyed the full support and enthusiasm of former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, and graduated millions of students across the nation.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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