Sunday, May 29, 2011

Flunking Civics

A recent article -- indeed, the cover story -- in the American Bar Association Journal details the extent to which America's kids are "flunking civics." The story is a sad one. Strikingly few young Americans know much at all about our system of government, or about the rule of law, what it means, and why it is important. We know from numerous other studies that knowledge of popular entertainment is significantly greater than knowledge of American government or the meaning of American principles. We know that, while most Americans -- young or old -- are patriots, sometimes rabid ones, they ultimately know little about what it is they claim to love. They thrill, or feel they ought to thrill, at the idea or image of the United States, at the flag and the strains of the Star Spangled Banner, with nary a clue of the complex set of principles they represent. They support our troops, without any understanding of how troops in Afghanistan are "protecting our freedoms," let alone what those freedoms truly are. They enjoy days off from work on Memorial Day, July 4th, and other secular holidays, but their knowledge of what makes the United States different or inspirational, of the ideas upon which this nation is founded, or of the mechanics of government is thin at best. They confuse patriotism with jingoism. They cheer for the home team for no other reason than it is the home team.

As I have argued many times before, the primary reason American citizens -- be they schoolchildren or adults -- know so little about our government and the principles upon which it was founded, about public affairs and the major issues that confront us as a nation, is that our schools give short shrift to civics. A strikingly small number of schools in this country offer even one course on government, let alone the repetitive overexposure granted to mathematics, English, and science. While some states require students to demonstrate at least some knowledge of government and public affairs, most do not. Many, like Vermont, settle for a mere ticking off of a "grade level expectation" that permits a school to claim to teach students about the Constitution because they hold an hour-long assembly on Constitution Day or a teacher mentions the Framers during a quick buzz-through of the founding of our nation. An embarrassingly large number of teachers -- let alone their students -- are not clear about the differences between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, believe that immediately prior to the drafting of the Constitution we were "colonies," and think Jefferson helped write the Constitution. Very, very few really understand what the Constitution or its provisions mean or understand the debates about that meaning that persist today. The vigorous debates between federalists and anti-federalists that characterized the period in which the Constitution was adopted and were carried on well into the twentieth century (and persist today, albeit in altered form) are little understood, despite the centrality of those debates for an appreciation of what citizenship means in a nation such as ours.

Of course, it is not just teachers and their students who fall far short here. Most citizens know even less. I have been personally appalled by the lack of knowledge among many in the legal profession -- people who know everything there is to know about complex trusts or real estate permits but know next to nothing about the deep foundations of our democratic republic. Even public officials lack a basic understanding of the principles of government, the role of the constitution in a constitutional republic, or the meaning of "republic" and "democracy" and the ways in which our nation embodies them. But a democratic, constitutional republic requires more than an educated elite. It requires, as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and many others in the founding generation appreciated, an educated citizen body, a citizenry that knows about public affairs and government, a citizenry conversant with political ideas (rather than ideologies), a citizenry with the attitudes and skills necessary for self-government within a constitutional framework.  

Civic ignorance, in other words, should deeply concern us. Schools should be producing future citizens who can and will participate in community and national affairs, not just good workers for America Incorporated or scientists that, given sufficient funds, can outperform our Asian competitors for the greater glory of
American capitalism. The health of a constitutional republic such as our own can only be maintained if citizens who are capable of speaking, deliberating, choosing, and acting in public are produced and reproduced. A failure to raise good citizens inevitably leads to a failure of the kind of system that relies on citizens and its replacement by a system that thrives on the existence of mere passive subjects (or should I say, "objects"?). In America, we have gotten quite good at producing subjects. We are not so good at producing citizens.

So it should bother us greatly when our national institutions withdraw support from civic education in their effort to cut the federal budget, reduce "social spending," and halt the practice of funding so-called "earmarks." This is exactly what the current Congress has done by eliminating in its continuing budget resolution funding for the Education for Democracy Act. That Act funds a number of national civic education programs, all of which have bi-partisan support. The problem is that the Act names those programs, thereby triggering the wrath of those who want to eliminate all earmarks (appropriations targeted at specific, named programs, groups, organizations, and companies). Out with the earmark bathwater has gone the baby of civic education. Programs with which the Vermont Bar Association has been closely involved, including the highly successful We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution and the Representative Democracy in America programs provided by the Center for Civic Education, have been cut from the federal budget. These programs are the single best source of high quality civic education in the United States, but they depended on Congressional funding for their existence, let alone their success.

Education is, as ever, an easy target for budget-cutters. They find support in the general ignorance about the value of education for a constitutional republic. And, of course, the less civic education is available, the fewer people realize its importance; a downward spiral is created in which fewer educational programs produce fewer people educated enough to understand why education is valuable, people who in turn support the funding of even fewer programs, thereby reducing the number of the educated, and so on. Budget-cutters also find support in what historian Richard Hofstadter described as "anti-intellectualism" in American life: a general distrust of those who spend their lives thinking rather than slaving away in the marketplace, a deep-seated national skepticism about the educated, the artist, the writer, the thinker. A strong case can be made that we live in the latest heyday of anti-intellectualism, an era in which the ignorance of Joe the Plumber is valued more highly than the complex understanding fostered now and again by National Public Radio -- an era in which candidates for the highest office are unembarrassed by revelations that they don't read newspapers, don't know basic details about the world, and don't understand the reasoning of courts. Budget-cutters also find support in the common prejudice in society against teachers, who, it is said, work only part of the year and make too much money. They find support in those who tell us that education should be producing workers with the skills to cope with the modern world, and that doing so leaves no time remaining for social studies, let alone "frills" such as music, art, and theater programs. They find support, finally, in a national selfishness that sees the reduction of government spending (especially on programs that benefit the poor, the helpless, the young) to be the essence of freedom.

Increasingly I fear for the prospect of true citizenship in the United States. One thing is certain: unless we, the people, find ways to halt the downward spiral of ever-declining civic knowledge, our great experiment in constitutional democracy -- perhaps still "the last best hope of earth" for government that values citizens rather than subjects -- may soon collapse, and "government of the people, by the people, for the people" may perish from our shores, if not from the earth.