In Restoring Civics, Start with the Basics

Published December 5, 2019

In a bit of good news for this Thanksgiving, it appears that many would-be shapers of education policy are plugging for the return of civics to the curricula of schools and colleges.

The bad news is that many of the prime movers and shakers behind a “new civics” still cling to the old progressive hostility toward a knowledge-based approach to teaching and testing American students about representative government and its historical roots in this exceptional nation.

A little more bad news: A survey released this fall by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni added to a mountain of evidence that adults, including many who attend college, don’t command much civic knowledge. For example, fewer than half knew that John Roberts is the current chief justice of the United States. More than one-quarter thought Brett Kavanaugh was.

Term lengths of U.S. senators and representatives? That is a piece of information any informed voter should know; however, fewer than half of college graduates could give the correct numbers. (The answer, by the way, is six and two, respectively).

Now for some better news: Five years ago, a coalition of prominent leaders assembled by the Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute launched a Civics Education Initiative intended to ensure that all young Americans are taught basic civics and tested on their grasp of the fundamentals. Former U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein were among the participants.

The idea was simple: States ought to administer their high school students the same U.S. Citizenship Civics Test that all applicants for U.S. citizenship must pass. To earn a diploma, young Americans should have to show they know at least as much about this country’s system of self-government and heritage as those who have come here in quest of the blessings of liberty. And schools should teach what students need to know to be knowledgeable citizens in an exceptional republic.

Yes, most of the questions in the bank of 100 from which the multiple-choice citizenship tests are crafted require no deep thinking. A few examples: “What is the supreme law of the land?” “What did the Declaration of Independence do?” “What do we call the first 10 amendments to the Constitution?” Yet, knowing about the Constitution, the reasons for rejecting British rule, and the Bill of Rights’ safeguarding of individual liberty from overbearing government opens the door to a deeper understanding of American exceptionalism.

The initiative took action to revive civics, while many other critics mainly theorized about creating a new “action civics” centered around student political activism. As a result, more than half the 30 states adopting civics proficiency standards in the past five years have integrated the citizenship test into their accountability systems. While some use it as a stand-alone test, others have drawn from it to develop their own tests.

Now, about those sour notes from progressive thinkers.

A coalition of 90 organizations, named CivXNow and assembled by an online curricular outfit called iCivics, is seeking ways to make civics a priority in revised social studies standards and to align new kinds of assessments to them. Large though it is, the coalition found no room for the Joe Foss Institute, progenitor of the Civics Education Initiative.

As Education Week has reported, the very idea of schools using the citizenship test elicits a “torrent of criticism from leaders who favor the new, broader conception of civics education.” Jessica Marshall, former social studies director for Chicago schools, put it this way: “[The citizenship tests] don’t tell us if young people know how to mobilize their communities to get resources or pass laws they care about.”

It is worthy of note that leaders of the Civics Education Initiative envisioned it as just the “first step in expanding civic awareness,” and expressed hope in their mission statement that it would “serve as a foundation for a reawakening of civic learning and engagement.”

So, there could be room for a meeting of the minds. There is a lot to be said for students having the opportunity to write research papers or develop projects independently. But first they should have a base of knowledge from which to proceed.