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George Nethercutt: Grasp of civics leads to real July 4 celebration

George Nethercutt

Every July 4, stories appear that affirm what most Americans already know: Too many don’t know why we celebrate July 4, from whom the American colonies sought independence in 1776, or what the Declaration of Independence is all about.

Several years ago, Newsweek gave 1,000 Americans the immigrant citizenship test, the one applicants must pass if they want to become U.S. citizens. The results were chronicled under the headline “How Dumb Are We?” In that study, 6 percent couldn’t circle Independence Day on a calendar, and 44 percent didn’t know why the United States fought the Cold War. Other studies confirm what we see on various interview television shows: There’s a serious knowledge problem in the U.S. where civic learning is concerned.

That’s why I’ve patented a Web app focused on what all Americans should know about our country. American Aptitudes is a free, online survey that challenges Americans to test their knowledge about basic U.S. history, government, economics and foreign policy. It will soon be beta-tested by Rogers High School students and teachers. It’s been presented to the Illinois Boys State delegates.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a test given by the U.S. Department of Education to fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders across America to see how they stack up against their peers on math, science, civics and other basic subjects. The department’s “America’s Report Card” helps educators know whether our nation’s schools measure up to the learning standards we expect; whether our schools are adequately educating our children.

Sadly, in civic learning, America’s students have made little progress since the test was first given in 1998. That’s bad news for students, teachers, schools, principals and taxpayers.

Each year, despite spending more than any other industrialized nation on per-student education, U.S. students trail their international rivals. In 2014, the U.S. was not in the top 10 of all countries ranked by educational excellence. South Korea led all nations.

The study of civics and how to be better citizens was the subject of a regionwide effort the Nethercutt Foundation undertook in 2014. Pitting fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders against their peers in a Citizenship Tournament testing civics knowledge led to winning students receiving scholarships worth $14,000, plus educational travel for students, parents and teachers to learn about federal, state and municipal government.

Hundreds of Eastern Washington students from 40 schools participated, and every student who competed in one round of academic competition and completed five of 15 citizenship tasks received a prize.

The Spokane Education Association, Boy Scouts, Better Business Bureau and several local banks and credit unions all support civic learning efforts. Numerous companies and individuals that care about young people learning the American story assisted the foundation’s tournament.

With the support of the Joe Foss Institute, Edward M. Kennedy Institute and several other nonprofit civics organizations, the concept of learning about America to perpetuate our founding principles is making a comeback. The Foss Institute is leading the effort for states to require high school seniors to pass the immigrant citizenship test as a condition of graduation. In 2012, I taught a popular course entitled “Why Study America?” at Harvard University. Last fall, I delivered lectures on fostering American principles to students and faculty at Gonzaga University in Florence, Italy.

Civic learning is devoid of political persuasion. It isn’t necessary for students to choose a party philosophy to know and understand how the American system developed. In fact, understanding the political pressures that craft public policies engages students, and helps them understand and appreciate future leadership requirements. They are able to separate what might be good for America compared to what might benefit one political group or another. Finding leaders who subscribe to helping America progress is the key.

Knowing why American independence was secured, and what principles formed today’s America is important for citizen engagement. Civically engaged families vote more often, discuss the complexity of today’s issues, and volunteer as active citizens in their communities. Understanding history, how government works and how the American economy functions leads to more citizen participation in the issues that touch their lives.

As international issues predominate, all citizens should know where Iran is on a map and sense how the IMF operates. Understanding human rights, the rule of law, justice, freedom and other rights is empowering.

If they do, most Americans should have no trouble knowing why we celebrate July 4 each year.

George Nethercutt isa former representative from the 5th Congressional District.
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