Next year, the United States will hold an election. Voters will be asked to decide critical questions of who will represent them and what policies they would like enacted. The 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress on Civics, just out from the U.S. Education Department, finds that three-quarters of America's high school seniors are not "proficient" in civics — that branch of learning that studies the relationship between citizens and their government. Most of those students will be eligible to vote next year.
This is cause for worry, and for action.
The Nation's Report Card, as the NAEP is also known, reveals that students have a "basic knowledge" of American government, but a "limited understanding" of how it works. What does that mean? Simply that students know things like who occupies the White House currently, but not what he does, or why it might be important.
In other words, it is possible that many potential voters do not know what they are voting on or why they should vote at all, other than that they have been implored to vote because it is their right.
Like government, there are certain limits on what schools can and should do. Thomas Jefferson summed up the goals of elementary public education nicely, in the so-called Rockfish Gap report, the document that laid the intellectual foundations of the University of Virginia. "The objects of...primary education determine its character and limits," Jefferson wrote. These include:
- To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business;
- To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contacts and accounts, in writing;
- To improve, by reading, his morals and faculties;
- To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either;
- To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains, to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor, and judgment;
- And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.
So we know what the goals are. How do we get there?
Jefferson goes on to say that to instruct "the mass of our citizens in these, their rights, interests and duties," the schools should focus on reading, writing, arithmetic, geometry, and the "outlines" of history and geography.
It took a generation or so before Jefferson's idea of primary education won widespread support. His recommendations remain relevant today. Lawmakers and educators have put the cart before the educational horse, as it were — instructing children on the perils of AIDS before they have mastered their multiplication tables, to give just one example.
Teachers do not lack the means of teaching the rudiments of America, only the will to do so. The Claremont Institute has worked diligently on this question for 20 years. Lately, we have gone to the Internet. Our website, Founding.com, "a user's guide to the Declaration of Independence," targets junior-high- and high-schools. We have made great headway with history and social studies teachers, especially in California. I urge you to visit it.
Our Director of Publications, Ben Boychuk, has written an article that delves a little further into the 1998 Nation's Report Card on Civics. I invite you to read it.
- Without Civics, Freedom Dies, by Ben Boychuk