The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Will better civics classes lead to a better America? Don’t count on it.

Doug "Chopper" Altman waits near Mar-a-Lago on Saturday for President Trump to ride past. Altman is part of a group of supporters who call themselves the "Bridge Family" and cheer for Trump every time he visits his Palm Beach, Fla., club.
Doug "Chopper" Altman waits near Mar-a-Lago on Saturday for President Trump to ride past. Altman is part of a group of supporters who call themselves the "Bridge Family" and cheer for Trump every time he visits his Palm Beach, Fla., club. (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)
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Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is a former civics teacher and a brilliant writer on education issues. One of his most provocative recent pieces on is “Can a Redesigned AP Government Course Get Schools Back Into the Civic Education Game?

Like him, I applaud the new Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics course. But I strongly disagree with his view that it could be the “means of getting back into the civic education game in earnest.”

If we don’t improve civics instruction, Pondiscio said, we must “resign ourselves to our poisoned national politics.” He quoted another fine education writer, Rick Kahlenberg, saying that the election of Donald Trump represents a “Sputnik moment” for civic education. It forces us to confront our failure “at what the nation’s founders saw as education’s most basic purpose,” readying students for thoughtful and competent self-government, Kahlenberg said.

I think they’re wrong. Better civics classes won’t help. Ignorance of American government and history is part of our culture. Our average scores on civics have always been low. It is not a popular course. The outrages of gerrymandering rarely come up in daily conversation. We are free to ignore elections, and more than 40 percent of us did in 2016. We’ll always be more interested in getting our bills paid and finding time for fun than studying candidates’ position papers.

Pondiscio and Kahlenberg told me they agree that improving civics instruction will not save the country, but they hope the renewed interest in governing caused by the election might lead to better teaching and improve democracy’s image. Both were bothered by a survey showing the portion of young Americans saying democracy was a bad system jumped from 16 percent in 1995 to 24 percent in 2011.

History suggests even the best teaching won’t fix that. Many Americans are under the impression that schools used to teach social studies better than they do now. Not so. A 1917 U.S. history test of 1,500 students in Texas yielded only 33 percent correct answers in high schools and 49 percent in universities. In 1943, only 6 percent of a national sample of 7,000 college freshmen could name the 13 colonies, and only 13 percent knew James Madison was president during the War of 1812. In 1976, a national sample of about 2,000 college college freshmen on average got only half of 42 multiple-choice questions right.

If our ignorance is to blame in part for the 2016 election results, which I have heard people say, what exactly should we have learned that would have kept us from electing President Trump? Were we overwhelmed because he said so many things that weren’t true? My civics and history teachers taught me that presidents can and do lie. Was it his inexperience or nastiness? I know many A-plus civics students who voted for people like that.

Voting in America is very personal. It forces us to think as individuals not only about what we learned in school, but also our feelings about the candidates. Our personal knowledge and emotions may conflict. Frequently, we operate on blind faith that God or good luck will pull us through.

Some of us think Trump’s win was a triumph of the ill-informed. That is hard to square with the numbers. He may have gotten only 43 percent of the votes cast by college graduates, but that is 22 million people. Some commentators have decried this as a failure of higher education, but they rarely say what the colleges should have taught that would have made a difference.

As Pondiscio wisely observes, there are no prerequisites for AP government in our high schools. Schools should urge many more students to take it. But no matter how much they learn, their votes are likely to be more influenced by their fears and ambitions. To restore our faith in democracy, we have to know much more about how to help one another than we did in 2016.