The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Many Americans know nothing about their government. Here’s a bold way schools can fix that.

The U.S. Constitution. (National Archives)

You probably didn’t notice, but Sept. 17 was Constitution Day. What is that, you ask?

It’s a day that commemorates the signing of the final version of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787, by 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention who created a new U.S. government — about which most Americans know embarrassingly little. Congress created Constitution Day in 2004, requiring all schools that receive federal funding to offer some type of “educational program” on the U.S. Constitution on or close to Sept. 17 every year.

A single day is not anywhere nearly enough — certainly not at a time when the country is facing ocean-deep political divisions and when the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has stoked racial fears and encouraged violence while displaying profound ignorance of how the government that he wants to lead works.

How little do Americans know about the workings of their own government? And does it really matter to the continued workings of that government?

A new survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania finds that things are getting worse: Just a quarter of Americans in the nationally representative survey could name all three branches of government — the worst showing on that question in six years. And this is even worse: Nearly a third could not name a single branch of government.

Among the findings:

  • Nearly 4 in 10 (39 percent) incorrectly said that the Constitution gives the president the power to declare war. Just more than half (54 percent) knew that the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war.
  • A vast majority (83 percent) correctly said that the Constitution gives Congress the power to raise taxes.
  • A majority (77 percent) know that the Constitution says that Congress cannot establish an official religion — though almost 1 in 10 agreed with the statement that the Constitution says, “Congress can outlaw atheism because the United States is one country under God.”

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center said in a statement, “Lack of basic civics knowledge is worrisome and an argument for an increased focus on civics education in the schools.”

“Worrisome” is an understatement.

Although Americans have never been known for their astute civics knowledge — with surveys over the years bearing out the sorry truth — it also matters how much Americans know about their government. I am not original in saying that constitutional democracies require citizens who understand the ethos of democracy and are willing to do the hard work to improve it. Alexis de Tocqueville (yes, I am citing Tocqueville) noted that democracy is not self-perpetuating but needs to be fostered by succeeding generations. With the U.S. government now larger and more complex than ever, it takes deeper understanding to keep trying to shape it into one that works for all people, not just some of them.

That means that instead of needing fewer people who can name a branch of government, we need more who actually understand the history of the U.S. government and how it functions so that citizens can properly exercise their most important civic responsibility: voting.

And let’s face it, while people on all sides of the political spectrum call for more and better civics education, there has not really been a sustained focus by our national leaders. (President Obama’s “bold new initiative to empower a generation of American students,” according to a news release earlier this year, is on “computer science for all.”)

What if, for one year, schools stopped focusing on computer science and obsessing about STEM? What if schools spent an entire year framing the entire curriculum (outside of physical education) around American civics so that students of every age could learn the history of the country in all of its complexities and how our government was formed and operates? Kids could read and write and learn financial literacy and literature and music and art and science around this initiative.

The Common Core State Standards actually call for students to read primary founding documents of the United States — three to be exact: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. That’s fine, but it’s hardly sufficient. And, besides, students are supposed to do “close readings” and analysis of the texts without using “prior knowledge.”

President John F. Kennedy once famously said: “There is an old saying that the course of civilization is a race between catastrophe and education. In a democracy such as ours, we must make sure that education wins the race.” That’s why in 2013, 15 professional organizations collaborated to create “The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History” to help schools make civics a core subject. It says:

The need for strong preparation in social studies is as apparent today as it has been in the past. In their Framework for 21st Century Learning (2011), the Partnership for 21st Century Skills identified government and civics, economics, geography, and history among the nine core subjects. Moreover, civic literacy, global awareness, and financial, economic, business, and entrepreneurial literacy are identified among the 21st century interdisciplinary themes. Finally, several of the key life and career skills listed fall firmly if not exclusively in the social studies: students must be able to work independently, be self-directed learners, interact effectively with others, and work effectively in diverse teams. The push for college and career readiness, so evident in the Common Core State Standards, is important, but as the Framework for 21st Century Learning makes clear, equally important is the need to help students ready themselves for their roles as citizens.
The rationale for social studies as one of the core school subjects is compelling. Unfortunately, that rationale has not always translated into the kinds of coherent and ambitious teaching and learning that enable students to achieve the promise of calls like the Framework for 21st Century Learning.

Perhaps it’s time to make social studies and civics education not a core subject but the core subject.