<< The Body Politic

Fault lines in our democracy

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

William E. White writes in the Huffington Post that “Americans have forgotten the reason why we educate children in America. As a result our children, schools, communities, and the nation are suffering. […] We have forgotten that there is only one purpose for an education system in a republic: to educate citizens.”

He continues:

Anything that distracts us from that singular objective is destructive to our children and the nation. What passes for civic education (if our children actually get any civic education–many don’t) is an overview of process. Textbooks describe federalism and the differences between local, state, and national governments. Students read chapters about the checks and balances of the separate branches of government. “Process” is not responsible citizenship, nor is it exciting teaching. The United States of America is truly built on the foundation of “We the People.” Without active and informed citizens, the republic will fail. Over and over again the founding generation reminded themselves, and us, that an educated citizenry is the fuel–the guarantee–of a strong, vital republic.

A new study by the Educational Testing Service confirms White’s diagnosis, finding that civic knowledge (as well as socioeconomic status and age) is closely linked with civic participation. Here are some highlights from “Fault Lines in Our Democracy: Civic Knowledge, Voting Behavior, and Civic Engagement in the United States”:

  • “Data collected from students and schools show that almost all eighth and 12th graders study civics in school. Yet there is a disconnect between what students study and what they learn; only about one-quarter of students in fourth, eighth and 12th grades score at or above Proficient, the level at which students demonstrate solid academic performance. The lack of civic knowledge provides ample concern for the future of our democracy, as it has an effect on civic participation and one of the most critical civic acts–voting. The data presented in this report show that voting is becoming increasingly associated with individual characteristics: age, education, literacy levels, knowledge of public affairs, and income.”
  • “To illustrate the combined effect of age, education, and income on voting rates, estimates were calculated for nearly 300 age, income, and education subgroups in the 2010 congressional elections. At the bottom of the distribution with a voting rate of 3.5 percent were young high school dropouts with a low household income (under $20,000). At the top with an 80.5 percent voting rate were 55- to 64-year-old adults with a master’s degree or higher and an annual income between $100,000 and $150,000. This degree of stratification–the top group’s rate is 23 times higher than that of the bottom group–is historically unprecedented. The nation’s less-educated, lower-income, and young adults have voluntarily disenfranchised themselves from the voting process.”
  • “Young adults’ attention to public affairs also was related to their educational attainment and achievement levels. Overall, while more than half of young adults reported paying considerable attention to public affairs, large proportions of young adults with low test scores and low levels of education reported paying attention to public affairs “hardly at all.” Analyses of international data on adolescents’ political attitudes also reveal a disconnect between many adolescents and their societies. Across U.S., Western European and Australian adolescents surveyed, about half could be characterized as “indifferent,” “disaffected,” or “alienated.” This combination of the limited civics knowledge of the nation’s students and the low overall rates of voting and civic engagement–which vary significantly across key socioeconomic groups defined by age, educational attainment, and level of affluence–should be viewed as a major concern by policymakers, our elected leaders, and the general public.”

Read the rest of the report, including an in-depth breakdown on the status of civics knowledge and education in public schools, here.