In any competition, there must be a common set of standards used to create a fair and transparent battle. For our representative democracy, these standards are outlined in our Constitution. Unfortunately, too many Americans haven’t been taught, or worse, have forgotten basic civics.
A 2019 poll conducted by the Institute for Citizens and Scholars found that only 40% of Americans could pass the citizenship test given to those who are immigrating to this country. Asking someone to name the three branches of government – legislative, executive, and judiciary – can lead to embarrassing stammering and moments of silence. Forget about explaining the concept of checks and balances.
This national lack of knowledge has spurred the drafting of the Civics Secures Democracy Act, which has been introduced in the House and Senate. And it is not just pushed by one side of the aisle. Republican Senator John Cornyn (TX) and Democratic Senator Chris Coons (DE), along with Republican House member Tom Cole (OK) and Democrat Rosa DeLauro (CT) are the co-sponsors. In an age of divisive political polarization, this bill is a shining example of bipartisan consensus.
The reason for such a bill is simple. We don’t know the principles of how bills become law, and how disagreements get resolved. To quote Senator Cornyn:
“…this idea that we’re going to live our lives without finding somebody or something we disagree with is just a fantasy. And we need to disabuse young people at an early point in their lives that they’re going to encounter people different from themselves, with different experiences and different points of view, but that’s what it means to grow up and to mature and become more wise and to learn to live together and to try to build consensus, rather than just have separate lanes so that we all sort of operate or travel in.”
Beyond the conflict and division of today, there is a real reason that there is little or no understanding of basic civics. It just is not emphasized in school. According to a Wall Street Journal piece authored by six past Secretaries of Education, 1,000 times more money is invested into teaching science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) than is put into teaching civics. Another way of looking at it is that our current education system prioritizes high-paying jobs, rather than cultivating a core of critical thinking skills grounded in civics education.
The lack of a civics education reverberates into other areas of our society. For example, we as a nation have a very low level of news literacy. In 1970, about 70% of Americans read a newspaper daily. Today, that has fallen to just about 20%. Each citizen is inundated with articles and other content passed along on social media platforms and, without a solid education, it is difficult to figure out fact from fiction. According to the News Literacy Project, only 26% of U.S adults could correctly classify five factual statements presented to them, 35% could correctly classify five opinion statements, and 96% of high-school students failed to challenge the credibility of an unknown source. In a January 2021 study by Edelman, only 46% of American adults trust “traditional media.”
Many Americans do not know how to properly identify our First Amendment rights. In 2020, while thankfully 73% of Americans say that freedom of speech is included in our Bill of Rights, only 47% named freedom of religion, 42% named freedom of the press, and 34% named right of assembly, according to the annual Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey.
We could similarly deconstruct all 26 active Amendments, but that would not serve anyone’s time or education. What we should do is look at some of the buzzwords and catchphrases we love to throw around, like “No taxation without representation.” The phrase means that we elect officials so that our tax monies are invested in areas and projects that we deem to be a priority. It does not mean any taxation.
Perhaps most importantly, this past election cycle revealed our lack of knowledge in voting. Currently, many Republican-controlled legislatures are attempting to pass legislation that would restrict voting access, and at least 14 states have enacted laws this year that tighten voting laws. While the media have been reporting endlessly on voting legislation, many Americans fail to grasp how these changes would affect them in the next election cycle. A comprehensive civics education would raise public awareness.
All of us have a basic understanding of how our government is organized and constructed. It is the mortar that keeps the citizens bound together. Ignorance of these tenets and processes leads to misunderstandings and deeper divisions. So, I am recommending you exercise your First Amendment rights and get ahold of your Senators and Congressional Representatives to urge them to vote in favor of the Civics Secures Democracy Act.