Does Civics Make Us Americans

civicsShould civics be taught in U.S. schools? Steven Spielberg might say yes. In his new Cold War-era movie, “Bridge of Spies,” Tom Hanks plays a real-life insurance lawyer, James Donovan, who takes on a very unpopular pro bono case defending a Soviet spy. At one point in the movie when Donovan is challenged by a CIA agent as to why he would defend a clear traitor to America, Donovan says this:

I’m Irish and you’re German, but what makes us Americans? Just one thing…the rule book. We call it the Constitution and we agree to the rules, and that’s what makes us Americans.

It’s quite likely that Spielberg and Hanks, both lovers of American history, would appreciate the recent legislation out of Springfield. In September, Governor Bruce Rauner signed HB 4025 into law. It makes civics education a 2020 graduation requirement for all high school students in the state. Specifically, the law requires that students take at least one semester of civics education with a “focus on government institutions, the discussion of current and controversial issues, service learning, and simulations of the democratic process.”

The goal sounds admirable, to teach students news literacy, critical thinking, and how to discuss politics in a courteous, civil manner. In these days of legislative gridlock, it seems having a class that teaches students how to engage in fact-based, civil discourse could generally be seen as a good use of scarce educational resources.

Anyone who thinks that is clearly unfamiliar with the U.S. educational landscape. The law was greeted with immediate backlash. More tests, more teacher trainings, more money needed for a state currently without a budget, more pressure on students to complete more requirements to graduate.

Test Your Civics

Now, to be fair, those are all viable criticisms. However, let me throw some questions at you. See if you know the answers (without looking on Wikipedia).

  1. Name one of your state’s U.S. senators.
  2. Name your U.S. representative.
  3. Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the federal government. What is one power of the federal government?
  4. What are two rights of everyone living in the United States?
  5. Name one right only for United States citizens.
  6. When was the Constitution written?
  7. Name one of the writers of the Federalist Papers.
  8. What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy?
  9. What is the name of the Vice President of the United States now?
  10. What is freedom of religion?

How did you do? If you’re reading this, you’re likely a lawyer so I’m going to assume (hope) that you did fairly well.

Those 10 questions and 90 others make up the civics portion of the U.S. Naturalization Test, commonly called the citizenship test. In order to pass the test, you need to get six of ten questions right.

I am very familiar with the test, and all 100 answers, as I took the test to get my Certificate of Naturalization certificate two years ago. And, thankfully, I am a lawyer and already knew things like the number of Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court and the division of powers between the federal government and the states.

Many U.S. Citizens Do Not Pass The Test

Unfortunately, most U.S. citizens don’t have the benefit of a legal education. In a 2012 survey of 1,023 native-born, voting age Americans, only 65% of them got the required 6 out of 10 questions right to pass the citizenship test. Or as Newsweek more bluntly put it when they offered the test to 1,000 U.S. Citizens:

29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.

Which takes us back to the new civics requirement. Read through this report from the Illinois Task Force on Civic Education. The report identifies the goal of civics education – “to help all young people acquire and learn to use the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will prepare them to be competent and responsible citizens throughout their lives.” Moreover,

Civic learning is indispensable to preserving our system of self-government. The integrity and health of American democracy depends on the active, informed, and effective participation of Americans, whether through voting, campaigning for office, or monitoring their government’s activities.

That’s an idea lawyers can get behind. As stated in the Preamble to the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct, lawyers are responsible for furthering the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law. The authority of legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depends on the support and participation of an engaged public. We as lawyers need to promote the civic engagement of the populace for the effective administration of justice.

But if the general consensus is that civics education is good, how did it fall out of mainstream American education?

There are a few theories. As the Task Force Report states, the recent push of math and science to the forefront forced some subjects to the back burner, including civics. Also the ’60s can take part of the blame. While modern civics education had always been dull, it was sustained thanks to the patriotic fervor brought on by two World Wars. Enter the ’60s and Vietnam and Watergate, and the accompanying loss of faith in traditional institutions and traditional leaders, along with the advent of multiculturalism, and civics education fell by the wayside.

Where and When Should Civics Be Taught?

Now an entire civics course isn’t entirely necessary to pass that citizenship test. Some combination of social studies and history could likely teach enough. Currently Illinois requires two years of social studies, one of which must be in U.S. history.

And yet, history and social studies do not get to the very heart of civics education – teaching students how to become engaged members of their democracy. Not to simply know that ten Amendments form the Bill of Rights, but to understand how the Bill of Rights interplays in our everyday discourse, and to learn that away from the noise that so often clouds public debate. Civics education teaches American students about school Christmas pageants and the First Amendment, about concealed weapons and the Second Amendment, and about locker searches and the Fourth Amendment. If they don’t learn it in high school, when will they learn it?

If your answer is, “in college,” consider that in 2014, only 68.4% of American high school students enrolled in college. As for graduating for college, the 2014 graduation rate for students enrolled in a 4-year college was 59%. So let’s combine those numbers. Only 68.4% of American high schoolers enroll in college. Only 59% of those who enroll in college, complete college. Not to mention, there’s no guarantee that students will learn civics in college. From conservative think tank Intercollegiate Studies Institute:

Each year, approximately 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 [colleges] nationwide were given a 60-question, multiple-choice exam on basic knowledge of America’s heritage. Both years, the students failed. The average freshman scored 51.7% the first year and 51.4% the next. The average senior scored 53.2%, then 54.2%. After all the time, effort, and money spent on college, students emerge no better off in understanding the fundamental features of American self-government.

Here’s a better number. Between 93 and 98% of all 14-17 year old Americans are enrolled in school. If we want to teach civics to the widest number of young Americans, teaching them in school is the best place to start.

We The People

We the People Of the United States under The Constitution for the United States of America. Those words mean something. Let’s teach our students what that is. Let’s teach them to respect the Constitution, to challenge the Constitution, to engage in the Constitution, and through the Constitution, to civilly disagree with each other to work toward a more Perfect Union. In the words of James Donovan, that’s what makes us Americans.

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

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