In a heated presidential campaign year, two dates in history have illustrated our deep national divide. The New York Times spoke for liberal America when it declared last year that the real founding of the country was in 1619 when the first African slaves arrived on its shores. In short, the 1619 Project argued that what was distinctive and problematic about America was its economic system of capitalism and the original sin of slavery that established it.
President Trump responded for many conservatives last month when he proposed the creation of a 1776 commission, underscoring that the real founding of the country came with the Declaration of Independence and, a decade later, the Constitution. What makes America distinctive, in this view, is political freedom guaranteed by a unique constitutional system.
While this is an important debate, two other numbers speak more clearly and less divisively about today’s most serious problem with U.S. history: Twenty-four and 15. Those are the percentages of eighth graders who scored “proficient” or better in government/civics (24%) and U.S. history (15%) in National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores announced earlier this year. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rightly called these scores “stark and inexcusable.”
Sam Cooke’s 1960 song lyric is now literally true of America’s children: “Don’t know much about history.”
We fail to appreciate the profound effect civic ignorance has on the body politic. Only about 60% bother to vote, described by Founding Father Thomas Paine as “the primary right by which other rights are protected.” Only 55% voted in 2016, even fewer (40%-50%) when there is no race for the presidency. Data published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that U.S. voting rates are only rated 26th out of 32 highly developed democratic states. Young people’s trust in government has plummeted, with only 27% expressing trust in elected officials. Indeed, only 17% trust the government “to do what is right most of the time.” As one expert said, “How can you trust what you do not understand?”
At other times in our recent history, failures in our educational system led to alarm and action. The Soviets’ launch of Sputnik, the first satellite in space, in 1957, led to calls for improvement in science and technology education. A discouraging national report on the state of education generally, “A Nation at Risk,” launched a series of reading and math initiatives in the 1980s and beyond. Despite failing test scores and reduced curriculum offerings in civics education, however, little or nothing has been done.
In a recent article published by the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, I have proposed a series of steps to reverse our civics decline. Happily, we do not have to wait for the gridlock and hyperpartisanship in Washington to go away in order to fix this because there are many important goals to be addressed at other levels, especially in the states and schools.
The main point is that we need to make civic education a national priority with extra emphasis everywhere. The federal government needs to restore and increase funding for civics that it practically eliminated in 2010. In fact, by one estimate, the federal government now spends $54 per schoolchild on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and a meager 5 cents per student on civics.
States that required multiple courses in civics and government in the 1960s in most cases now mandate only a single semester in civics education, with almost no attention to it in elementary and middle school. Studies show that teachers are often ill-prepared themselves to teach civics education. Is it any wonder that students in Rhode Island have sued their state for poor civics education?
Civics have taken a back seat in our schools to reading, math, and especially STEM. But can saving our democracy be any less important than getting good jobs in technology? That is what is at stake if we do not make a national commitment to strengthening civics education.