January 24, 2013
bald eagle
We THINK this is our national bird. (Charlie Neibergall / AP)

Who needs civics?

Maybe not D.C. high school students.

As Emma Brown reports, students in the nation’s capital might lose the civics requirement for graduation. The D.C. State Board of Education is floating changes to its graduation requirements — increasing the number of necessary credits from 24 to 26 but making it possible to obtain some of these credits through extracurricular arts, sports and cultural immersion programs. The changes would also increase the requirement for physical activity by 225 minutes each week.

And the civics requirement looks like it might go the way of the dodo.

Perhaps education officials have a point. When it comes to civics, ignorance is bliss. After all, government is all around us in the nation’s capital. And we can see up close how it all works: badly.

Knowing how your government is supposed to work will only make you frustrated and irritable. You watch “Schoolhouse Rock” sing about how bills become law, but “Schoolhouse Rock” neglected the hours of cable posturing and filibuster threats. Why torment yourself with the knowledge of how things might have gone? Leave the production of laws the way Victorians left sex: an ellipsis, followed by a baby. No lover of sausage takes the trouble to visit the factory. These students live close enough to the factory that they cannot avoid the stench. Why rub their noses in books on the subject?

We know what we need to. The last time I checked, approval of Congress is less widespread than herpes. We don’t need to worry about civic duty: every four years, celebrities will make a video reminding us to do it.

Sure, the Founders had pored over systems of government past and present and knew their Roman and Greek precedents inside out. But — they did, so we didn’t have to. It’s on Wikipedia somewhere.

It’s not as though we were doing well on these tests before. And that’s the response to failing a test: just stop taking it. Nor is it just D.C. that’s failing. American high school seniors scored abysmally low on civics in the Education Department’s most recent assessment in 2010, as Valerie Strauss pointed out – a mere 24 percent were proficient. What’s the Constitution? What’s the Bill of Rights for? Who wants to know?

President Obama said in his inaugural address that America is a nation bound not by shared culture or heritage but shared ideas. “Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago.”

To which 76 percent of high school seniors responded, “Huh?”

Need we learn what those shared ideas are? I’m sure we can Google it sometime. Let’s get those push-ups in.

Thomas Jefferson said that a nation that expects to be ignorant and free expects what never was and never shall be.

But who’s Thomas Jefferson and why should we listen to him?

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.