The Regrettable Death of Civics Education in America’s Schools

I recall when I was in middle school, junior high, and high school learning about our distinctive system of self-government and the necessity for the active informed civic participation of American citizens.

Those classes had a variety of names: American history, History of the U.S. government, and social studies were but a few.

But what all of them had in common was something called “Civics.”

Just what is Civics? Simply defined, civics is the study of the rights and duties of citizenship. It is a close examination of the privileges and obligations of citizenship.  Americans’ participation in civic life is essential to sustaining our democratic form of government. Without it, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people will not last.

Those are exciting ideas if presented correctly. They are the very underpinnings of our country’s founding as well as our most pressing social movements.

Sadly, civics education in America’s schools is dying, and if we fail to revive it, our republic and its democratic principles may die with it. There has been a sharp generational decline in Americans’ knowledge of our government, our Constitution, and our civic responsibilities.

Here are some shocking facts that substantiate that statement taken from recent surveys conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the Pew Foundation:

  • Only 39% of all native-born Americans can pass the U.S. citizenship test.
  • Even more alarming is what the data say about the generational decline: among native-born senior citizens, 74% pass the citizenship test, while a mere 20% of native-born Americans under the age of 45 can pass it.
  • Only 2 of 5 Americans can name all three branches of government.
  • Less than one-third of Americans can name the five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
  • Almost one-third of millennials believe that choosing leaders through free elections is “unimportant.”
  • Only 30% of millennials believe living in a democracy is “essential,” compared with 70 percent of baby boomers.
  • One in 10 recent college graduates thought that TV’s Judge Judy was serving on the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • And perhaps most alarming of all: Only 17 percent of Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do the right thing.

A major source of the problem is that the nation’s Founding principles are being undermined not only in colleges and universities but even in K-12 education—all of which have drifted progressively toward socialism.

There is little or no appreciation by teachers of the Founding documents, except to dismiss them as the sham rationalizations of white male property holders. We need to be wary because action civics is a movement that is pushing hard for wide-scale acceptance. We know our students are civically illiterate.

It seems prudent to first teach them what our principles are, and then, there are very proper ways for them to go out and ‘do civics.’ But understanding the Founders and our nation’s Founding principles must come first.

Instead, students today are being taught inaccurate, fraudulent, and revisionist versions of history by highly politicized teachers and professors. Using duplicitous tomes such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, mendacious notions such as Critical Race Theory, and the discredited New York Times’ 1619 Project, teachers are indoctrinating young minds with the idea that America is a malevolent nation whose history is corrupted by slavery, bigotry, white supremacy, systemic racism, exploitation, and capitalist imperialism.

The fact that America is the only nation in history ever founded on an idea—that the only legitimate purpose of government is to protect certain inalienable rights that include the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—is conveniently disregarded.

Our nation’s founders were quite clear: government is not there to tell people what to do, or how to live their lives or to take by force what each person has earned by his or her own efforts.

President Ronald Reagan once said: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

That’s a frightening thought, but today I see it becoming more and more likely.

Adam Seagrave, associate director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, recently wrote the following: “Our schools have been largely neglecting Civics education for the past 50 years. Without this foundation in place, American constitutional democracy appears to be reeling. Why has this happened? Two main culprits are to blame:

  1. The disproportionate emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education that followed the original “Sputnik moment” during the Cold War and has been reinforced in public policy ever since; AND:
  2. The culture wars that emerged in reaction to the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s.

It is important that educators don’t see their role as teaching one political ideology over another. Too often, however, teachers confuse teaching civics with teaching politics. That is not what civics education is all about.

In today’s super-heated and polarized political environment teaching civics is a tough task. I discovered that while teaching journalism as a professor at the University of Illinois.

A class discussion about civil discourse can degenerate into all-out verbal warfare in seconds. One minute you are discussing the importance of carefully and rationally considering the opposition’s opinion, and the next you are throwing yourself on top of the “word- grenade” some offended student has just lobbed into the middle of the room.

The fact that social media and mainstream media are both setting an example for belligerent vitriol hasn’t help cool the heated exchanges either. These days, students are all too quick to follow suit.

Many students turn to spitting out soundbites they have heard and rarely listen carefully to the opposition. That shouldn’t be a reason to shy away from these discussions, but ironically, it is the very reason we need to have them.

When I was in elementary and middle school, every school day began with the class standing, hand on heart, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Today, that is considered passé and even discouraged in some schools. That’s too bad because those words still carry terrific meaning and in a way, they are a lesson in civics themselves:

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