Tuesday, December 30th, 2014
December 30, 2014 | AEIdeas
Few would contest that the majority of Americans’ dissatisfaction with the direction of government has become something of a national pastime in recent years. Fewer still would deny that the national discourse about proposed solutions for our political woes resembles anything but a discourse. But the seemingly stark political landscape has caused a welcome budding of interest in the role that long-neglected notions of civics and civic education courses play in the nation’s short- and long-term health. After 40-plus years of having to wander in the education agenda desert, civics in 2014 began to be welcomed back into the classroom, everywhere from Massachusetts to Florida to California.
Coalitions in seven states have launched a movement to require students to pass the US Citizenship exam as a requirement for graduation, and the movement is gaining traction. By 2017, legislatures in all 50 states will consider the identical issue, if the national campaign mounted by the Civics Education Initiative succeeds. Meanwhile, Massachusetts went one step farther, when its Board of Higher Education adopted the policy (the first in the nation) to make civics a part of every undergraduate degree at state community colleges and public four-year colleges and universities, beginning in the fall 2014 semester.
Considering that only 24% of high school seniors were “proficient” in civics skills and knowledge in 2010 according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and considering that just this September, 35% of Americans at large couldn’t name even one branch of the US government according to an Annenburg Public Policy Center survey, the action on the civics education front is excellent news. As research published by AEI’s own Program on American Citizenship has shown, relevant data definitely shows that consequential civics assessments—tests required for graduation—do increase the civic knowledge of students, most especially of Hispanic and minority students. And surely, a national discourse is more likely to be fruitful when all participants have a working knowledge of the basic structure of government.
But don’t saber the champagne bottles just yet. While reinstituting civic education in classrooms should be among the primary goals of education and state policy-makers, no amount of civics testing will entirely answer the purpose of a civics education. The content—what a civics education ought to include—and the narrative through which the facts of rights, duties, political structures, and historical dates are made coherent and presented, are essential to prompting citizens to civic engagement. The desired outcome of civic behaviors such as voting is prompted by the desire to invest in the longevity and prosperity of your country’s system of government. But the informed attachment to country that civics education is supposed to nurture is an idea still very much banished to wandering in the desert.
Sound citizens are a requirement for the practice of democracy. Creating sound citizens is predicated on inculcating sound character habits and dispositions through a variety of means. But even these worthy goals are insufficient if unaccompanied by efforts to cultivate within American citizens the appreciation of the value or worthiness of the American political order. Without an understanding of the pillars of the American way of life, there can be no firm attachment to or love of country. Citizens who lack an inner compulsion to invest in their regime are adrift not only from their community at large, but also from perpetuating its core principles and supporting institutions.
Without appreciation or attachment, even decent individuals are unable to defend their regime against critics and ill-wishers. No person is born already in love with his country, as even the just-released AP Poll on American’s declining sense of duty shows. A proper civics education is needed to foster it.