This is why we need to be teaching civics in school. If you are of a certain age, you remember those civics classes. We’d form a class “government” to learn how our real government works. My class did, anyway.
Since civics classes have been dumped by most school districts, Americans’ knowledge of how our government works has nose-dived. The numbers are disturbing. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor expressed her concern to the American Bar Association when that group did a study in 2011 on how much younger Americans know:
“When I went to school, we had all kinds of courses on civics and government. Today, at least half of the states don’t even require high school students to take civics; only three states require it in middle school.”
The lack of civics in the curriculum for most schools can be traced back to Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative. Under its metric any subject other than reading, math and science was considered to be unimportant. That included history, social studies and civics. Over the past thirteen years since NCLB was put in place, students have been made to focus on math, reading and science. Those are important, of course, but so is history. So is social studies. So is civics.
Deprived of a full education, these students grow into adults who can’t participate fully in our democracy. They are easily manipulated to vote against their own self-interest because they just do not know anything but what they are told by authority figures. Too often, those figures include people like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and the Fox News menagerie. This is why Fox News viewers are less informed than someone who watches no news at all.
A new poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania has shown how much the loss of civics classes has impacted the average American’s understanding of our government. The poll, done in partnership with the Civics Renewal Network, sampled 1,416 adults via land-line and cell, in English and Spanish. You can read more about the methodology here.
Can you name our three branches of government?
When asked to name all three branches of government, 36% could do so, while 35% couldn’t name one. Not. One. When asked about overturning a presidential veto, only 27% knew that it takes a 2/3 vote of the House and Senate to do so. One in five Americans think that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision has to be sent to Congress for reconsideration. Oh, wouldn’t that be interesting?
It gets worse. When asked which party held the majority in the House, 44% didn’t know at all, while 14% misidentified that majority as Democrats. Similarly, when asked who controlled the Senate, 38% correctly answered that the Democrats do while 20% thought it was the Republicans and a whopping 42% didn’t know.
There is one ray of hope, though. When asked if the media should be prevented by law from reporting on an issue of national security without governmental permission, a majority of 54% opposed the idea. Score one for the First Amendment.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, sees a real need for teaching civics:
“Although surveys reflect disapproval of the way Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court are conducting their affairs, the Annenberg survey demonstrates that many know surprisingly little about these branches of government. This survey offers dramatic evidence of the need for more and better civics education.”
Those of us who are politically engaged and better educated are better-informed. We talk about politics, write about it, argue about it. We are involved. Teaching our children about how our government works is the key to getting them involved. If we don’t have an educated, knowledgeable, engaged public, we are susceptible to liars and crooks being elected to office. And we see how that’s working.