This Outlook article on young people's knowledge of American history and government incorrectly said a survey of U.S. high school students had missed almost half the questions on a civic literacy test. The students were in college.
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Hey, Young Americans, Here's a Text for You
"Congress is bought and paid for."
"Elections are just a front for corporations."
"My teacher says you shouldn't believe anything you read in the newspapers at all," a 16-year-old from affluent Menlo Park, Calif., told me last week.
Even those who are politically engaged don't have much faith in our system's potential. "I was taught that it's set up for the elites and for old white men and that there's not much you can do about it," said Christopher Le, 28, who works at a suicide hotline in Austin. Le's mother was a "boat person" who fled Vietnam with her 4-month-old son so that he could be raised in freedom. But few Americans in the under-30 set have her kind of faith in the United States. As Le put it, "No one taught us that democracy was this shining, inspiring thing."
The United States has been blessed with more than 200 years of a strong democracy, so it's easy to yield to a comforting -- and lazy -- conviction that it's magically self-sustaining and doesn't need to be defended, an idea that would have horrified the Founders, who knew that our democracy would be a fragile thing.
In recent years, the trend away from teaching democracy to young Americans has been at least partly a consequence of the trend of teaching to the standardized tests introduced by the Bush administration. Mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the tests assess chiefly math and reading comprehension. Basic civics and history have suffered. As a result, teenagers and young adults often have no clue why the United States is different from, say, Egypt or Russia; they have little idea what liberty is.
Few young Americans understand that the Second Amendment keeps their homes safe from the kind of government intrusion that other citizens suffer around the world; few realize that "due process" means that they can't be locked up in a dungeon by the state and left to languish indefinitely.
This dangerous ignorance is confirmed by the Knight Foundation, which has found an alarming decline in student support for the First Amendment. In a 2004 survey, more than a third of the student respondents thought that the First Amendment went too far in guaranteeing freedom of speech and of the press. By 2006, the number who held that view had swelled to half.
In the absence of strong civics training and in the presence of a "war on terror" that insistently portrays freedom and checks and balances as threats to national security, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have become controversial for today's young people.
But this distressing situation isn't just George W. Bush's fault. Young Americans have also inherited some strains of thought from the left that have undermined their awareness of and respect for democracy. When New Left activists of the 1960s started the antiwar and free speech student movements, they didn't get their intellectual framework from Montesquieu or Thomas Paine: They looked to Marx, Lenin and Mao. It became fashionable to employ Marxist ways of thinking about social change: not "reform" but "dialectic"; not "citizen engagement" but "ideological correctness"; not working for change but "fighting the man."
During the Vietnam War, the left further weakened itself by abandoning the notion of patriotism. Young antiwar leaders burned the flag instead of invoking the ideals of the republic it represents. By turning their backs on the idea of patriotism -- and even on the brave men who were fighting the unpopular war -- the left abandoned the field to the right to "brand" patriotism as it own, often in a way that means uncritical support for anything the executive branch decides to do.
In the Reagan era, when the Iran-contra scandal showed a disregard for the rule of law, college students were preoccupied with the fashionable theories of post-structuralism and deconstructionism, critical language and psychoanalytic theories developed by French philosophers Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida that were often applied to the political world, with disastrous consequences. These theories were often presented to students as an argument that the state -- even in the United States -- is only a network of power structures. This also helped confine to the attic of unfashionable ideas the notion that the state could be a platform for freedom; so much for the fusty old Rights of Man.