Civic Education, Politics, and an Uninformed Populace

youthBy Carol Josel

Certain dates are standouts, like February 14, October 31, and December 25. But what about September 17? It should be a standout, too, but it’s not. In fact, most of us don’t give the date a second thought; we certainly should, though. That’s because it’s not just another day; it’s Constitution day, set aside by Congress back in 1952 to foster civic engagement.

To institutionalize the day, back in 2005, Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia promoted legislation that would mandate recognition of Constitution Day in all schools and colleges that receive federal monies. Unfortunately, six years later, Congress stripped civic-education funding, and that, says Education Week‘s Ross Brenneman, sent the message that civics is important, but not worth federal dollars.

And so it goes.

As a people we are sorely uniformed about American history and the workings of our government. Indeed, many are not even sure who our current leaders are–with one exception. Not surprisingly, Obama enjoys big name recognition, since he’s been president for almost six years and frequently crisscrosses the country campaigning and fundraising. Moreover, our new health care program’s nickname bears his name.

But what about second-in-command Joe Biden?

That’s exactly what late-night show host Jimmy Kimmel recently asked some folks on Hollywood Boulevard. One girl suggested he might be a man; a few others said they’d seen him in movies. Another identified him as a Republican who is set to run for president, while a couple more seem to think he’s a governor. It went downhill from there.

Afterward, The Huffington Post responded with the headline, “Jimmy Kimmel Hilariously Proves Americans Don’t Know Who Joe Biden Is.” Laughable and shameful, too. Meanwhile, a 2010 Pew Research Center found that only 59% of us know he’s the vice-president-a failing grade if ever there were one.

As for the Constitution, in September, theAnnenberg Public Policy Center asked 1,416 adults questions about the government. The result:

  • 36% could name all three branches of government; 27% couldn’t name any.
  • 27% knew it takes a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate to override a presidential veto.
  • 21% incorrectly thought a 5-4 Supreme Court decision goes back to Congress for reconsideration.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. One glance at the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam suggests that our children are clueless, too, constitutionally and governmentally speaking. Here you go:

  • 27% of 4th graders scored at the proficient level orbetter;
  • 22% of 8th graders scored at the proficient level or better;
  • 24% of 12th graders scored at the proficient level or better.

Explains retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: “Knowledge of our system of government is not handed down through the gene pool. The habits of citizenship must be learned… But we have neglected civic education for the past several decades, and the results are predictably dismal.”

That sentiment is seconded by Citizen First’s Robert Pendiscio who says, “We send kids to school not just to become employees and entrepreneurs, but citizens capable of wise and effective self-government in our democracy. The public dimension of schooling was a founding principle of American education. We have all but forgotten it in the era of education overhaul.”

That, too, is the reason Justice O’Connor founded iCivics.org. Its purpose: “Reinvigorating civic learning through interactive and engaging learning resources. Our educational resources empower teachers and prepare the next generation of students to become knowledgeable and engaged citizens.”

Meanwhile, in 2013, the Civics Education Initiative was formed with support from Justice O’Connor, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and even actor Joe Mantegna. Its mission is to get all 50 states to require that their high schoolers take and pass the 100-question U.S. Naturalization Test. And they’re starting to gain some ground.

So far, seven states are considering legislation that, though not a requirement, would reward students who take the test. As it stands, those scoring at least a 60% would see a yet-to-be-determined uptick in their grade point averages. Those states are:

  1. Arizona
  2. Louisiana
  3. Missouri
  4. Oklahoma
  5. South Carolina
  6. South Dakota
  7. Vermont

FYI: 91% of those seeking citizenship pass the exam. Here are a few sample question to test your own civics knowledge:

  1. What is the supreme law of the land?
  2. The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words?
  3. What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?
  4. What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment?
  5. How many amendments does the Constitution have?
  6. What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?
  7. Who is in charge of the executive branch?
  8. How many U.S. Senators are there?
  9. We elect a U.S. Senator for how many years?
  10. The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
  11. We elect a United States Representative for how many years?

To check your answers, go to the Naturalization Test on U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services website. And then do one better. Get yourself a copy of the Constitution; you can pick one up at your local bookstore or head to Amazon or Barnes & Nobel online. Then read, learn, and talk it up with your kids, friends and neighbors, too.

Carol is a learning specialist who worked with middle school children and their parents at the Methacton School District in Pennsylvania for more than 25 years and now supervises student teachers at Gwynedd-Mercy University and Ursinus College. Along with the booklet, 149 Parenting School-Wise Tips: Intermediate Grades & Up, and numerous articles in such publications as Teaching Pre-K-8 and Curious Parents, she has authored three successful learning guidebooks: Getting School-Wise: A Student Guidebook, Other-Wise and School-Wise: A Parent Guidebook, and ESL Activities for Every Month of the School Year. Carol also writes for examiner.com; find her articles at http://tinyurl.com/1416px. For more information, go to http://www.schoolwisebooks.com or contact Carol at carol@schoolwisebooks.com.

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