7-Year Decline of Civic Literacy

A recent survey found only one out of four Americans can name all three branches of government, showing a significant decline from just seven years ago. Despite these dismal numbers, emerging evidence suggests a resurgence in civics education across the country.

The diffusion of knowledge is essential to the ability of Americans to safeguard their rights and liberties. In fact, Texas’ Constitution lists this as the purpose of public education. And, of course, our nation’s founders believed the same:

“Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” – George Washington’s Farewell Address

The federal government and Department of Education have done their part to tilt the balance in student curriculums. Two recent federal incursions into education, known as No Child Left Behind (2002) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), both created incentives for math, science, and reading.

Whether intentional or not, this focus came at the expense of history and civics, as shown in recent surveys.

Slightly less than a majority in one survey knew that a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision carries the same legal weight as a 9-0 decision. One quarter believe that a 5-4 decision is referred to Congress for resolution, and nearly a third thought a decision of the high court could be appealed. A majority of college graduates don’t know that U.S. Senators serve six-year terms.

Furthermore, 80 percent of baby boomers identify communism as a historic and persistent evil, compared to 55 percent of millennials, and nearly a third believe President George W. Bush killed more people than Joseph Stalin. Failures in civics education are thought to be to blame for millennials’ uncritical acceptance of socialism and their embracing of far-left politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

A recent story in The Atlantic claims the election of President Donald Trump is contributing to renewed efforts to bolster civics literacy. They point to mass marches, packed town hall meetings, and organized demonstrations at airports and campuses as signs on the political Left. On the Right, they say the Federalist Society is seeing rising interest in their Article I project on executive power, along with increased interest in civic start-ups like Free the People.

Indeed, the rise of populist movements indicates a trend towards bottom-up power and civic engagement. Brexit, Arab Spring, the Tea Party, and Black Lives Matter all provide evidence of a new trend in popular activism.

But while activism will assuredly teach the tools of power in the citizenry’s arsenal, it doesn’t necessarily instill the founders’ values rooted in self-governance.

“The blame for our country’s growing civic illiteracy must be laid at the feet of our colleges and universities, which train not only undergraduate students but also our future K-12 teachers,” says Tom Lindsay of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Robert Pondiscio, from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, believes that some educators are not comfortable teaching on topics like patriotism and nationalism. As evidence he points to the mission statements from the 100 largest school districts nationally. None included the words “patriotic” or “patriotism,” nor “America” or “American,” while 28 mentioned “global” or “global economy.” Additionally, references to college career outnumbered “civic” or “citizen.”

“It raises in my mind the question whether it is time to reinvest our children in a shared American narrative: a complicated to be sure and at times uncomfortable narrative but in which we all share,” Pondiscio said.

Currently, 27 states have considered bills or other proposals during their last legislative session to expand civics education. Many of the changes include teacher training and increased curriculum standards for civics throughout K-12 levels, mostly focused on media literacy and a closer study of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and state founding documents.

Florida and Missouri have jumped on the bandwagon, with the former approving a civic literacy component at public universities, and the latter requiring college students score above 70 on the U.S. naturalization test.

Does the lack of civic literacy spell doom for the republic? While there are alarming signs, others show promise. Although the decline in civics literacy has undoubtedly contributed to an erosion of traditional American values, we might be witnessing the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction.

Last session, a bill in the Texas legislature, HB 1776, proposed requiring Texas high school students to pass a civics test to graduate. It didn’t pass, but some private technology firms are moving in to fill the gap, with one non-profit company developing iCivics, a set of free online educational games.

Finally, as we began this report, Texas Scorecard was informed of an “Article V Amendment” high school scholarship competition sponsored by GW Bridge Academy.

Their call for submissions states, “This competition is designed to encourage you to propose an amendment to the US Constitution – one that you deem necessary to the preservation of the founding principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.”

So long as our reengagement in civic pride includes the study and practice of America’s founding principles of popular sovereignty and limited government, enshrined in the constitution, we can be hopeful that our destiny is secure. But if mob activism devoid of American civic values persists, self-governance will remain in peril.

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Salvador Ayala

Sal is the Budget & Policy Analyst for Empower Texans. He has been a committed proponent of American founding principles since 2007, shortly after receiving his J.D. from Chicago-Kent College of Law. Before joining Empower Texans, he served as legislative director for Rep. Matt Rinaldi in the Texas house and was a delegate to the 2012 RNC. In his leisure, Sal enjoys live music, digital photography, guitar, bicycling, trivia, and documentary films.

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