Rebuilding Citizenship

We can attack apathy by teaching young people everything we can about America's amazing story

The word "crisis" is often overused, but the current lack of civic learning is a bona fide crisis to which America — leaders and citizens at all levels — should pay attention.

The Pew Center recently published its findings about Americans' lack of knowledge of current political affairs. The U.S. Department of Education's periodic Report Card assessing our nation's schools showed no progress for American students in the areas of civic learning, social studies and understanding government. Public figures as diverse as former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, actor Richard Dreyfuss and author/historian David McCullough, among others, have called for greater emphasis on student understanding of the American story, including studying the Constitution and other founding documents that chronicle our country's development.

McCullough bravely proclaimed months ago that if today's generation doesn't understand how America was developed and works today, our nation won't recover. Lack of student knowledge was apparent in a recent YouTube video. Ten American University students in Washington, D.C., were asked to name one U.S. Senator. Only one could, but all 10 could name the theme song from the movie Frozen.

Some states, at the urging and efforts of the nonprofit Joe Foss Institute, are reacting to student deficiencies by passing laws and regulations requiring high school seniors to pass the immigrant citizenship test as a condition of graduation. More states will follow as the failures of schools to teach civics and citizenship are revealed.

In 2012, two Harvard University professors wrote in the Harvard Crimson magazine that colleges and universities shortchange students and parents by not relating college course subjects to their social and political consequences or benefits. Some universities understand their obligation to graduate students who understand American society, possess technical and subject-matter knowledge, and are prepared to act as responsible citizens, both in their nation, their communities and throughout the world. Civic learning that includes U.S. history, economics, government and foreign policy will prepare students for citizenship that enhances any jobs they'll secure. Understanding how government works, how taxes are collected and disbursed, how government structures impact citizens' lives and how laws are made will be valuable to youngsters who later serve in public positions, or merely make their way in American society.

Think about it: If an enemy of the United States were to attack Americans, rendering them ignorant of American history, oblivious to economic consequences, brainwashing them so they don't appreciate how global nations connect, or preventing them from standing up for freedom as a basic concept and national value, most citizens would be outraged. They'd demand that Congress and the President preserve our great heritage and protect accepted American values. Elected officials would be vilified if they didn't.

Yet that's where the U.S. finds itself a mere 239 years after our founding. A recent national Washington Post poll affirms that most Americans today believe their children won't achieve the American Dream; that they'll be worse off economically than their parents. While the American Dream focuses largely on economic achievement, it encompasses a sense of American well-being, a national pride borne of national self-confidence and a self-identity that defends a system of government based on the principles of justice, representative government, human rights, rule of law and equality. These concepts of freedom are familiar to other nations, but only practiced with historical understanding by Americans. They're therefore worthy of protection and preservation.

Today, most Americans believe such concepts should be protected. Yet broad understanding of their depth and breadth is waning.

That's why many Americans are calling for a return to a greater focus on civic learning and active citizenship. Studying American history, economics, foreign policy and government is a bipartisan, politically neutral effort, embraced by most political groups, including the Better Business Bureau, Boy Scouts, teachers unions, and numerous business concerns, among others. Readers of this column are hereby challenged to identify any entity that doesn't think civic learning is important.

America is at a tipping point: It will either return to a period of crisis-avoiding civic learning, or it will deem civics merely as important as the Hula-Hoop — a forgotten fad.

If it's the latter, the America we've known and treasured will fade from view and become an unsustainable form of government, largely because of American society's apathy. It will follow the lead of other historical democracies that have failed to sustain themselves.

And that's a crisis worth avoiding. ♦

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About The Author

George Nethercutt

From 1995-2005, George Nethercutt was the Republican Congressman from Spokane. He contributes to the commentary section of the Inlander.