“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
— George Santayana
“Half the states have stopped making civics and government a requirement for high school. Half.”
— Sandra Day O’Connor
You may have seen the doomsday headlines this week bemoaning the fact that 10 percent of college graduates in a recent survey thought that Judge Judy was a member of the United States Supreme Court. I must admit that I’m always skeptical when I see reports like that. I immediately want to know what the survey methodology was, how the questions were worded and whether the entity doing the survey had a profit motive in doing it.
In this case, however, the entity conducting the survey was the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit organization that urges colleges to uphold high academic standards and that was founded 20 years ago by a group that included Lynne Cheney, Joe Lieberman and Nobel winner Saul Bellow. And while it’s possible that some number of the survey respondents were being facetious, the other data from the report is equally as alarming.
ACTA has been conducting similar studies since 2000. In its most recent study, fewer than one out of five college students knew that James Madison was the father of the American Constitution. Three out of five thought that it was Thomas Jefferson, even though Jefferson was serving as American ambassador to France at the time and was on the European continent when the Constitution was drafted.
Half of college graduates could not identify the process by which the Constitution is amended. Three-fifths couldn’t name a single requirement for the ratification of an amendment. Perhaps even more alarmingly, two-fifths of college graduates did not know that the U.S. Congress has the authority to declare war (perhaps because it hasn’t happened since World War II). Half did not know how long congressional representatives serve and more than half did not know the process for impeaching a president (something that has happened far more recently than a formal declaration of war).
Lest we think that this ignorance of our basic governmental functions has always been a problem, ACTA’s survey also noted that the problem has been getting far worse over time. For example, nearly all college graduates over age 65 knew that the president could not unilaterally establish taxes, but only three-quarters of those under 35 knew that. The full results are available online and even more disturbing than the highlights here.
A long list of other organizations have reached the same conclusion following their own studies — the Carnegie Corp., the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the Department of Education, the Center for Civic Education and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences have all raised the same alarms. Still, fewer than one in five colleges require students to take a single course in American history or government as a graduation requirement, even as many of those same institutions require non-science students to take a science class or all students to meet a physical education requirement.
Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (who did actually serve on the U.S. Supreme Court) has made civics education her mission and her Legacy Fund has established the iCivics program to help education students through interactive lessons (www.icivics.org). More than 70,000 teachers in the U.S. are now using the iCivics program.
The Ohio State Bar Association and Ohio State Bar Foundation are doing their part through the William K. Weisenberg Fund for Civics Education, named after the long-serving state bar executive, who also happens to be a Delaware County resident. More information about the Weisenberg Fund can be found at www.osbf.net.
A well-informed public can better protect their rights, ensure that government is working effectively, make informed choices about their governance and can avoid some of the hostility that marks our public discourse today and that arises from a lack of understanding about the basis of our government.
Surveys like the one conducted by ACTA are the easy part — they pick the low-hanging fruit to show us what the problem is. The hard part is finding time to fit civics education into school schedules already crowded with testing and the funding to make that civics education effective.