In April, Purdue University announced a plan to adopt a civics literacy graduation requirement for undergraduates, beginning with students who enter the university this coming fall. As a longtime proponent of lifelong civics education, I hope this action will be emulated by universities across the country.
The United States has never needed civics education more. I would go so far as to say that the theoretical differences between conservatives and progressives on the governing principles of our country are greater today than they were at the time of the Civil War.
That may sound alarming, but anyone who has studied the Constitution of the Confederate States can see that both sides felt they were defending the U.S. Constitution as it was originally intended. In comparison, today’s battle is between two opposing views of how our country should be governed, with one side aligned with the Constitution and the other envisioning a new structure.
Sadly, conversations about important fundamental changes to our government, such as increasing the number of Supreme Court justices and abolishing the electoral college, are being held without a real depth of knowledge of what’s at stake.
The statistics are sobering. Study after study show that our nation is functionally illiterate when it comes to how our government works and the reasons behind its design. Embarrassingly, a 2018 study by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only 36 percent of Americans could pass the citizenship test that is part of the immigration process, a test that immigrants pass at a 97.5 percent rate.
We arrived at this point for two reasons: our civics education approach has failed students, and as citizens we’ve stopped being interested in civics.
Many students rely on high school AP courses to meet the general education requirement for social science in college. This doesn’t bode well for civics literacy since studies show that students are graduating high school with just rudimentary knowledge of how government works.
Students who do take a social science course in college often encounter a civics education that is hit or miss. A lot of college courses that meet the general education requirement for social sciences are pet projects of the professors. Some real examples of courses that technically meet civics requirements include studying courtroom dramas, completing a community service internship, conducting research or polling, and training on how to be a community organizer or activist. In other words, they are not teaching the basics.
Even if these students were proficient in civics, how one views government changes with age. For example, college students who are preparing to enter the workforce will want to understand taxation, while someone approaching retirement will be interested in social security and medicare. Expecting a 17 year old to care about taxation and social security is not realistic.
A civics proficiency requirement in college is a great first step in making citizens lifelong learners about the issues that impact their lives. Presumably, such a requirement will focus on the fundamentals of how the American system works, and teach students to think for themselves. In other words, not tell students what to think, but to train them to make informed decisions.
Civics education needs to get back to fundamentals by teaching basic facts, looking at various interpretations of the facts, and then encouraging citizens to use their judgment to come to a decision. In order to do that, curricula needs to be vetted to ensure it is neutral, fact-based and free from indoctrination.
The current method of fulfilling civics requirements with courses that do not teach the basics are failing to produce citizens that understand how the government works and how to reason based on facts.
Self government has never been easy, and we are witnessing a true division of opinion about how our government should work. Citizens need to understand what is at stake in the debate, so they can make informed decisions for the future.
Fred Fransen, Ph.D, is CEO of Certell, a nonprofit that creates sensible and entertaining social studies curriculum that animates the classroom and enables teachers to engage with and motivate today’s connected students.