Becoming Aware of Civic Unawareness

Civic education is vital in preparing students for the responsibilities and obligations of democratic citizenship. But a third of native-born American citizens fail the history and civics exam administered to immigrants who are seeking U.S. citizenship.
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A few years back, I was dismayed and horribly discouraged when I read that more than 70% of Americans could name all three of the Three Stooges but that barely 20% could name all three of the branches of our Federal government. That troubling fact led me to realize that, to an alarming extent, we have entered an era of civic unawareness.

A fundamental lack of civic knowledge and understanding can be found in every corner of our society -- from the inner city street corner to the country club lounge, among liberals and conservatives, young and old. Recent research at Cincinnati's Xavier University found that over one third of native-born American citizens could not pass the history and civics exam administered to immigrants who are seeking U.S. citizenship (a sample of such immigrants, by the way, scored in the high 90s!).

During this Memorial, a good number of us will be talking about the current state of the war in Afghanistan and the lingering aftermath of the war in Iraq. We'll talk about those who died in the war, about the wisdom of those conflicts, and the ways in which they have been conducted. And no one should question the bravery and sacrifice demonstrated by our fighting men and women as they have carried out their duties on our behalf.

What better time then to discuss the need for a debate about the importance of teaching civics?

Civic education is vital in preparing students -- future voters -- for the responsibilities and obligations of democratic citizenship. Young people should be taught how to think critically and to stand up in protest when ignorance prevails. Sadly, however, in too many instances, our schools have been failing in this civic duty.

"Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools," released last fall by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, brought attention to the dismal level of civic knowledge in our country. In the 1950s and 60s, schools were required to teach three civics courses. Many now offer only one course, and it is often optional. The result? Less than a third of young people can identify the three branches of government; one-third can't name any. Most high school seniors can't even explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.

Thankfully, the report doesn't stop with sounding the alarm. Instead, it prescribes real workable solutions to improve civic learning in grades K though 12. It recommends teachers bring civics to life by integrating it into all subjects and all grades. Instead of memorizing isolated facts, students should be forced to think analytically through simulated real life scenarios.

A similar report, "A Crucible Moment," released more recently by the U.S. Department of Education argues that civics should be reinvigorated among colleges and universities, as well. In order to succeed in today's economy, one must be able to examine problems, engage others and work well in teams to come up with practical solutions for our country's crises.

A strong civic education is not about memorizing the battles of the American Revolution or reciting the names of every one of our forty-four Presidents. It is about instilling in our children an understanding of their rights and duties as citizens. It is about teaching young people to ask the hard questions and demand sometimes complicated answers. And on an occasion such as Memorial Day, it is about honoring those who fulfilled one of the greatest civic duties of all.

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