Candidates take note: Scores just out from the U.S. Education Department show that three-quarters of America's high school seniors are not "proficient" in civics. With an election year around the corner, the time is ripe to turn a problem into an opportunity.
The 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress on Civics finds that students have a "basic knowledge" of American government but a "limited understanding" of how it works.
NAEP's civics test scored 4th, 8th and 12th graders on "components of knowledge" such as understanding "the rights and responsibilities of individuals in society."
It's a cherished doctrine of the education establishment that "facts don't matter." Knowing "how to think" is what counts. Yet students seem to do better on trivia questions than on high concepts, such as how the Constitution "represents the purposes, values and principles of American democracy."
For example, 93% of 4th graders knew that Bill Clinton is president. But just 43% knew that he signs bills into laws. And only 26% could answer a multiple-choice question about a political cartoon that showed how apathy is bad for democracy.
But the so-so showing by high school seniors almost all of whom will be eligible to vote in 2000 was met with the loudest cries about the sad state of our democracy.
Even so, the results should come as no surprise. American students do not grasp the basic principles of their government because those principles are not taught. That's dangerous for a republic founded on certain ideas of rights, freedom and equality under the law.
America's Founders knew better than most the importance of a good education. They knew that government "by the people" could not last if the people were ignorant or uninterested in how politics works.
Noah Webster, the man who gave us the first dictionary of American English, was one of the most passionate advocates of universal public education. "It is scarcely possible to reduce an enlightened people to civil or ecclesiastical tyranny," he wrote. "Deprive them of knowledge, and they sink almost insensibly in vassalage. Ignorance cramps the powers of the mind, at the same time that it blinds them to their natural rights."
"Natural rights"? We don't hear very much about those in 1999. But America's Founders thought they were pretty important.
The Declaration of Independence refers to "unalienable rights." Shouldn't students know what that means? For that matter, how many students can explain what a "self-evident truth" is?
Thomas Jefferson, the chief author of the Declaration, outlined what he thought should be the goals of public education in America. Among other things, it should "give every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business," "improve, by reading, his morals and faculties," and teach the citizen to "know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains."
Today, of course, Jefferson is branded a racist and his advice largely forgotten or ignored. Educators give lip service to fostering good citizenship in students. But the goals of education and of citizenship have changed.
"Rights," once constrained by the laws of nature, now include everything from the right to health care and free abortions, to the right to "affordable housing."
And to be a "good citizen," students have to know that the environment is threatened by corporate polluters. They have to know as the NAEP asked 12th graders that Social Security is "an issue of primary concern to the elderly."
"In no country," wrote Noah Webster, "is education so general in no country, have the body of the people such a knowledge of the rights of men and the principles of government. This knowledge, joined with a keen sense of liberty and a watchful jealousy, will guard our constitutions."
Today, America's children are barely acquainted with their country, or the principles on which it was founded. Instead, they are taught that the men who pledged their "lives, . . . fortunes and . . . sacred honor" to fight the British were really just rich, white property-owners who didn't like paying taxes.
And we're shocked that young people don't care about politics, and that voter turnout keeps falling?
Such mediocre results present an opportunity for any presidential candidate who chooses to take up the cause of America. Talk about the important things. Love and respect for the great American experiment in free government does not appear out of thin air. It has to be taught, cultivated and nurtured, or it will die.