Are you smarter about America than an immigrant?
When it comes to civics, maybe not. When Xavier University’s Center for the Study of the American Dream asked native-born residents to answer questions from the U.S. naturalization test earlier this year, one in three flunked the test. Less than 3 percent of immigrants applying for citizenship failed.
In a political environment where allegiance to the Constitution serves as a battle cry, how is it that less than 20 percent of Americans can name even two rights stated in the Declaration of Independence
In a culture where patriotism has become a litmus test, how is it that only 7 percent of Americans can name an author of the Federalist Papers, or only 38 percent knows what happened at the Constitutional Convention?
Sheila Kennedy, professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said she often begins discussions on civic literacy by asking people to guess the percentage of Americans who can name the three branches of government.
They’re amazed to know it’s just 36 percent, she said. And then it drops to 30 percent if you survey elected officials.
Kennedy said she doesn’t believe the problem is any worse than in earlier years, but said it’s a serious threat now because our population is diverse in every way – race, religion, political ideology and more.
Americans don’t have anything in common other than a theory of government, she said. The only thing that really makes us Americans is this devotion to our ideals as a nation. And if you don’t understand what people like John Stuart Mill and John Locke were writing about liberty – if you have no idea of the underpinnings of our form of government – how can you have discussions today about how free speech principles should apply to the Internet?
Chris McGrew, a former social studies coordinator for the Indiana Department of Education who has researched the status of civics education, offered little hope for a next, better informed generation. A 2010 study he co-authored with Phillip VanFossen at Purdue University-West Lafayette – a follow-up to VanFossen’s 2005 study – found that Indiana teachers in grades kindergarten through 3 were spending as little as 21 minutes a week on social studies lessons.
The responses suggested that, as in the previous study, respondents would devote more time to social studies if it was part of the ISTEP+ assessment, the Purdue study found.
Principals are actually coming out and saying to teachers: You won’t teach social studies; you really only focus on math and language arts,’ McGrew said. What happened in 2010 is that teachers got tired of making the case for social studies. They just threw up their hands and said, Fine – we won’t bother.’
Now, as director of the Office of International Programs and Services at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, McGrew notes the irony of remaking U.S. schools in the image of Asian schools centered on test-taking.
In my work, I see (other nations) are all interested in our schools because we can teach critical thinking, he said. But now, like the Chinese and Koreans, we’re teaching our kids how to take tests.
Does it matter?
Rebecca Reeder, a retired Southwest Allen County Schools teacher, is the 3rd District coordinator for We the People, an instructional program in which students study the Constitution and apply their knowledge in a mock congressional hearing before a panel of judges. Since it began about 25 years ago, the program has been supported by a federal education grant. But those dollars have been cut, and the local program is surviving with assistance from the state and Allen County bar foundations.
We used to teach civics in our schools, Reeder said. Now we teach government. While it’s important to know how government functions, civics deals with citizens’ rights and citizen responsibility within a republic. Today, we seem more interested in individual rights than in the common good – We the People talks more about citizen responsibility.
Despite the same standardized testing conflict McGrew describes, Reeder has been able to maintain a program with one of the largest middle-school competitions in the state, but she’s concerned that civic education is increasingly getting squeezed out. The repercussions long-term are troubling.
I hear people blaming the president – not just this one but the last one, too – for things that are not within the president’s control, she said. If the average citizen understood how (government) worked, it would make them feel more empowered. They now believe it doesn’t make any difference what they do, so they don’t bother.
Reeder said she believes a better understanding of government would eliminate the vitriol in political discourse, like the tendency to compare any political leader with whom someone disagrees to Hitler.
The former teacher doesn’t blame educators for the knowledge gap; she simply would like to see a different instructional focus. Indiana’s academic standards for U.S. government and history offer a generally sound basis for a strong civics education, she agreed, but have become simply another topic to cover.
I don’t think the problem is with the standards, she said. Sometimes I think we have too many standards students walk away without a real understanding of the concepts behind what they must memorize.
I would like to see civic responsibility and rights become more of a focus in schools, rather than an afterthought, Reeder said. I think we would get a better result if kids thought they could make a difference.
McGrew offers a classroom anecdote to illustrate the importance of civic literacy. He said a Chinese student in one of his courses four years ago was following news coverage of the Olympic torch run to Beijing, including stories about human rights protests aimed at the host nation.
I asked him if he was frustrated that people in China were getting a censored version of the news, McGrew recalled. He said he didn’t, because it made him aware that he had to get the information from other sources, while American students think they can turn to one source. I don’t think American students even stop to think that they might not be getting the whole story. They think they get the whole story from watching Fox (News) or CNN or even from Fort Wayne newspapers.
What should be done?
McGrew said he would like to see some of the millions spent on standardized testing returned to the classroom, where local teachers know best how to put it to work. Teaching students to think critically rather than performing for a test is a start, he said.
If you want to know who wrote the Constitution, you can look it up pretty quickly on your smartphone, he said. But if students knew what the Constitution stood for – that in this country, failure is not the end result, it’s part of the process – that would make a difference. People are willing to learn that because it’s the best country in the world.
Recognizing that it’s not just teachers who have a responsibility to improve civic education, IUPUI’s Kennedy is launching an ambitious effort that should be embraced statewide. Through a new Center on Civic Literacy, a project called The Civic Challenge is under way. She already has gathered ideas from scores of Hoosiers, including Randall Shepard, former chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court.
Tied to Indiana’s bicentennial commemoration in 2016, Kennedy said there are efforts to encourage organizations across central Indiana to devote 2015-16 programming to the Constitution and civic issues. A theater group might stage Twelve Angry Men, for example. An art museum might sponsor an exhibit of work from the days of the nation’s founding.
Surveys before and after the project will measure the project’s effectiveness and the IUPUI center will serve as a research arm and clearinghouse for what works in civic education.
Kennedy, a former Republican candidate for Congress and former director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, said the initiative won’t be ideological.
In a country that celebrates individual rights and respects individual liberty, there will always be dissent, differences of opinion, and struggles for power, she writes at her popular blog, sheilakennedy.net But there are different kinds of discord, and they aren’t all equal. When we argue from within the constitutional culture when we argue about the proper application of the American Idea to new situations or to previously marginalized populations we strengthen our bonds and learn how to bridge our differences.
The Civic Challenge is one that all Hoosiers should eagerly tackle as a bicentennial tribute. What better way to celebrate the state than to begin the next 100 years as an electorate knowledgeable of its rich heritage and prepared to live up to its ideals.