May 11, 2014 in Opinion

Guest opinion: Teaching civics is crucial for our future

George Nethercutt

On April 29, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced Senate Resolution 427, a measure expressing the sense of the Senate on the importance of effective civic education programs in our nation’s schools. The resolution passed the next day.

Washington is trying, too. The state now requires one semester of civics to graduate high school, but more is necessary.

Intensive civic learning is largely absent from America’s schools. Sadly, national surveys that test Americans’ civic knowledge periodically show a nation ignorant about American history, government, economics and foreign policy.

That under-education has national consequences, including a general population ignorant of America’s history and important constitutional principles that underpin its founding, a population lacking exposure to our justice system, and citizens with little understanding of government in general. It’s uncertain whether national leaders possess the requisite knowledge they need to make national decisions. All bode poorly for the continuation of America as our Founders basically intended it.

When applying for United States citizenship, applicants must learn basic American history and pass an exam testing their civic knowledge. When new citizens are sworn in, they oftentimes emotionally express their feelings on achieving citizenship. They had to work for it – and earn it.

Too many natural-born American citizens did neither, nor must they undergo any rigors of maintaining their American citizenship. A while ago, a Newsweek cover story asked the question, “How Dumb Are We?” Pretty dumb, it seems. Newsweek gave the immigrant citizenship test (the kind applicants must pass in order to become citizens) to 1,000 American adults.

Thirty-eight percent flunked it. Too many Americans couldn’t identify why we annually celebrate July 4 (American Independence Day) or the length of a U.S. Senate term (six years). A recent YouTube video showed students from American University – located in our nation’s capital – were unable to name one U.S. senator, but could easily name the theme song from the movie “Frozen.” Another survey showed public officials scoring 5 percentage points worse than the average adult.

My nonprofit, independent Nethercutt Foundation conducted a national survey in 2012 to glean public attitudes about civic learning. The results showed that 74 percent want federal elected officials to be knowledgeable about U.S. history, government, economics and foreign policy; 85 percent want civic learning taught in American schools as a core curriculum course; and 67 percent believe that every American should be able to pass the immigrant citizenship test.

Harvard University recently published the results of its spring survey of millennial-age (18-29) undergraduates, finding that fewer are planning to vote in November’s elections and affirming their disappointment in government institutions and national leaders. A generation of uninspired young people is being raised in America without learning about their country.

It’s up to those of us who grew up with a civics education to encourage young people to know the American story, and to help them gain an appreciation for the importance of the fundamental concepts of justice and the judicial system, human rights, civil rights, the rule of law, free enterprise and democracy. Otherwise, they’ll drift uneducated and insensitive to the principles that have helped the United States progress over 238 years of living by the Constitution as our guiding law of the land.

S.R. 427 is a good first step in the national re-emphasis on civic learning for all Americans. And, it allows elected officials to demonstrate their commitment to the importance of civics education for all young people.

Perhaps attitudes about civics are changing where it’s most important – at the student level.

Idaho high school teacher Holly Kartchner recently took a student team to the national “We the People” competition in Washington, D.C., and they won! On April 26, 40 enthusiastic semifinalist students (out of 550) from Eastern Washington fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-grade classes competed for $14,000 in scholarships awarded by the Nethercutt Foundation. Forty schools and numerous teachers participated, encouraging their students to be good citizens; knowledgeable about America. The winning students will not only receive scholarship funds, they’ll travel separately with family and teachers to City Hall, Olympia and Washington, D.C., respectively, to meet leaders and government officials there to better understand all three levels of government: local, state and federal.

Engaging young people in civic learning is a basic obligation of all adults and current leaders. Helping students become better citizens is essential if they are to perpetuate the concepts and practices that have made America great.

George Nethercutt represented Eastern Washington in Congress from 1995 through 2004.

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