America Fails in Civic Education

 /  April 2, 2017, 8:59 a.m.


Citizens concerned about the future of the American republic should be worried. Young Americansthe future leaders of our countryare the least patriotic, the least politically knowledgeable and the least civically engaged generation in history. The continued decline of civic education in America has created a millennial generation fundamentally ill-equipped to run the country, and has ensured that each graduating class of students are less prepared to fulfill their civic duty than the last. Because republics require patriotic, informed, and enthusiastic civic participation to operate effectively, the future of America looks grim. Unless we can reform education to connect civic education with civic participation, our country is in danger.

The Problem:

The recent election has brought this country to a crossroads. Institutions essential to republics—like elected representation, federalism with strong state and local government, a free press, and an active citizenry, among others—are in jeopardy. The United States can continue its shift away from these republican institutions, with lower interest in city, state, and local government, with declining trust in and influence of the media as a check on government power, with increasing congressional dysfunction, with rising congressional deference to the executive branch, and with Americans increasingly content to morally equate the United States with authoritarian regimes. This path leads rapidly to tyranny. The country desperately needs a reinvigorated republicanism, fortified by a more informed citizenry that actively participates in government and is dedicated to preserving the republic.

Recent research indicates that patriotism is on the decline among young Americans. According to the 2012 American National Election Study, party, gender and ethnicity have little correlation with the respondents’ levels of patriotism, but the differences are stark when age is the independent variable. The percentage of Americans who report that they “love America” steadily decreases from 81 percent among the Silent Generation (those who fought in the Second World War and the Korean War) to 58 percent among millennials. Similarly, the percentage of those who consider their American identity important decreases from 78 percent among the Silent Generation to 70 percent among Boomers to 60 percent among Generation X to a depressing 45 percent among millennials. While 94 percent of the Silent Generation feel good at the sight of the American flag, only 67 percent of millennials feel the same way. Additionally, according to a 2016 Gallup survey, only 34 percent of Americans under age 30 are “extremely proud” to be American, far lower than any other age group. In total, millennials had the biggest decline in patriotism of any age group since 2003.

Perhaps more troubling, however, is that research shows that levels of patriotism remain consistent throughout one’s lifetime. This makes the current lack of patriotism among young voters extremely disconcerting, as they are likely to remain unpatriotic for the rest of their lives. Unless patriotism is instilled early through civic education, it will likely never be instilled at all.

Not only are younger Americans increasingly unpatriotic, but they are also increasingly absent from the political process. In 2004, 2008 and 2012, millennial turnout rates hovered at abysmally low levels in the upper 40s—far below the 60s and 70s of older generations. In 2016, their rates again fell far behind those of older cohorts. On the whole, irrespective of age, voter turnout in the United States is well below that of most other developed countries. For legislative elections, only 42.5 percent of eligible voters voted in the United States. This is far below leaders like Australia and Singapore, which have turnout rates above 90 percent, and even relative underperformers like the United Kingdom, which had a turnout rate of 66.1 percent in its most recent parliamentary election. Moreover, the United States has the largest age gap in voter turnout rates of any democratic country, meaning that younger Americans are particularly uninvolved compared to their peers internationally.

Republics rely on a devoted and active citizenry to govern themselves and to elect responsible representatives at each level of government. These citizens need to be dedicated to preserving and protecting the nation, strengthened by core republican ideals learned through civic education. Without committed citizens to ensure the vitality of local communities or to hold elected representatives accountable, republics simply cannot endure.

The solution to the problem of millennial disengagement cannot simply be imposing mandatory voting; millennials are so uninformed that this solution would only cause more problems than it would solve. Because millennial disengagement often stems from lack of education, the solution must come from the educational system in the United States. For example, millennials are the only age group with a net favorable opinion of socialism (58 percent in favor, 37 percent opposed), yet only 16 percent of them can accurately define socialism, far less than older Americans. Indeed, when the question is rephrased as to preference for the free market or government control, millennials’ enthusiasm for socialism wanes.

National surveys of young Americans’ understanding of civics consistently show depressing results, as the research suggests not only the paucity of civic education, but also the worrying trend that young Americans are particularly ignorant. Compared to the 98 percent of older college graduates who correctly answered that the president could not levy taxes, only 73.8 percent of millennial college graduates answered correctly. Half of college students did not know the term lengths for senators and representatives, and 80 percent would have gotten a D or an F on a high school civics exam. According to National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2014, only 18 percent of American eighth-graders are at least proficient in US history (with only one percent “advanced”), 27 percent are proficient in geography (three percent advanced), and 23 percent are proficient in civics (two percent advanced).

The lack of civic education should worry all Americans. The fact that one-third of Americans could not name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment, only 36 percent could name all three branches of government, and only 27 percent knew that a two-thirds vote in Congress is needed to overturn a congressional veto is appalling. The sheer fact that each graduating class of Americans is significantly less informed than the last is terrifying. How can the American electorate possibly make sound decisions without even a basic understanding of how the government functions?

The great decline in civic education is driven, in part, by an increasing focus on pre-professionalism, preparing students for a competitive economic world rather than pushing them to become knowledgeable republican citizens. Not only has American education been undergoing a massive shift toward greater concentration on STEM fields, but, more importantly, the purpose of education is increasingly shifting toward vocational, technical training. Rather than molding citizens, schools are directing their attention and resources toward “core competencies.” It is, perhaps, symbolically illustrative that the National Assessment for Educational Progressthe same organization that assessed eighth-graders’ proficiency in 2014 actually eliminated testing in US history and civics in order to save money. Deemed irrelevant for preparing students to compete in global economic competition, these courses are increasingly disregarded by education policymakers. Thus, not only are students relatively uninformed about crucial civic issues, but they are also being taught  that their education should promote professional goals, rather than facilitate civic participation.

The Solution:

Luckily there is a solution—a two-pronged combination of a long-term strategy for rededicating education to the formation of citizenship and a short-term immediate fix that connects civic education with civic participation.

In the long-term, American schools must be rededicated to civic education as the primary purpose of education. The American public is not opposed to a civically purposed education—indeed, the public views preparation for citizenship as the second most important purpose of education, after academic achievement, but before professional skills. Therefore, education policymakers and school boards should resist calls to make American education vocational. Civic education should infuse every grade level and every class, forming the basis not just for a specific curriculum, but rather for the educational philosophy on which every curriculum is based.

Most importantly, parents and students should be informed that school subjects and topics are  taught and chosen not because it produces a useful skill, but instead because it will make better citizens. US history, world history, economics, and geography should be prioritized as subjects to promote increased civic knowledge. Moreover, even subjects not directly related to civic education should have a civic focus and direction: English students should read and write about American republican political thought and literature; foreign language classes should focus on Chinese and Spanish, languages both with large populations of American speakers and grounded in countries critical to American international interests; even math and science classes can study demographic and economic trends, the American climate, and the physics of the space mission. Moreover, even when studying subjects that have no direct relationship to the republic, ranging from Newton’s laws to computer programming, teachers should emphasize the importance of those topics to a republic’s functioning.

Such a fundamental repurposing of American education would take years, and there is no single means of achieving that ultimate end. New federal and state standards should work in concert to promote civic education. Local school boards should experiment with innovative techniques to integrate civic pride and participation into the curriculum. Over time, some of the most successful strategies can be studied and then replicated throughout the country.

In the short term, however, education policymakers could institute a simple fix: mandate a semester-long civics class in junior year of high school that is incorporated into the larger curriculum. This civics class could be tailored in different states and localities at the discretion of the respective education officials. Some versions could emphasize constitutional structures, while others could emphasize social structures; some could concentrate on case studies and others on principles inherent in republican government. All, however, would teach how the American government functions and the rights and duties of American citizens.

A critical feature of this civics program would be its combination with a radical shift in voter registration. Just as any good class combines the theoretical with the practical, the civics class should end with in-school voter registration, followed by voting as a class at school in the succeeding November of senior year. In place of the age threshold mandated by the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, all high-school students who complete their junior year civics course would be automatically registered to vote. Perhaps such a policy would not be retroactive, so citizens who reached adulthood after the program was implemented could still register to vote without having to take high school civics.

While this solution would mark a radical change in voting procedures, it would achieve numerous benefits that would counter dangerous trends emerging among young Americans. First, it would ensure that all young Americans would receive an education in civics. Second, by registering and then voting in school, all young Americans would be registered as soon as possible, and almost all would be able to vote in their first eligible election. This would not only increase youth turnout, but also inspire young Americans to vote in all future elections.

Third, and most importantly, this proposal would connect civic education with civic participation. Ensuring that all American high school students have a solid grounding in civics would increase respect for the American system of government and promote a sense of patriotic duty in preserving the republican values that undergird it. By registering students to vote immediately following their completion of civics, this system would illustrate practically that voting, far from being a right to be treated lightly, is a duty that demands citizens be informed. Such a mechanism would encourage voters to remain informed throughout their life to fulfill their republican duty. It would instill into the American psyche the duty not only of voting, but of voting as an informed citizen.

The long-term rededication of American education to civic participation, combined with an immediate change to voting procedures to connect voter registration and voting with a civics course, could reinvigorate the American republic.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Adam Chan

Adam Chan is a fourth-year Fundamentals major. This summer he interned at Hamilton Place Strategy, a policy consulting firm. Previously, he interned at CNN, focusing on the Russia investigation, at the R Street Institute, a think-tank in DC and an extern at the Department of the Interior. At the Gate, Adam has been a Senior Writer, Opinion Editor, and Editor-in-Chief, and now just writes for The Gate. On campus, Adam has also been President of the UChicago Political Union and has been a Team Leader at the institute of Politics, as well as an active member of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. He loves studying political philosophy and history, enjoys playing card and board games with friends, traveling, and eating exotic food.


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