A CIVICS LESSON?

5 December 2019

 “Considerable evidence exists that appallingly large numbers of students would not pass the exam of basic civic knowledge required for naturalization… Studies in Arizona and Oklahoma found the percentages of high school seniors passing this rudimentary test way down in the single digits — below 4 percent. By contrast, 92 percent of immigrants passed on their first try… The mark for passing is 6 correct answers — 60 percent… A new survey by The Annenberg Public Policy Center found that fewer than one-third of eighth-grade students could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence. And one in three adults could not name even one of the three branches of government.” Robert Holland and Don Soifer, Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch, 28 September 2014.

  I took the U. S. Citizenship Civics Test to see how I would do. (You can, too) I aced the basic test – 10 out of 10 correct. It was easy. I tried the 25-question version, and missed two answers. (In my defense, one question was badly worded. It asked for one statement that was correct; actually, three statements were correct – “all of the above” – which I knew, but it clearly asked for one, so that’s how I answered. The other I missed fair and square, even though it was one I should have known.) Finally, I took the Big One – 99 questions. Because I knew of my errors on the smaller test, I didn’t make those mistakes again. I was correct on all 99 questions.

   I don’t have a “smart phone,” don’t play video games, and only occasionally watch television. Consequently, I’m pretty sure that I read a lot more, and pay attention to the news more, than the average American. But I don’t think that’s the answer to my success. These tests are EASY! They are multiple-choice; here are a couple of sample questions: (1) What are the first 10 amendments to the Constitution called? (Possible answers: The Laws of Men, The Rights of Men, The Bill of Rights, The List of Rights.) (2) What are the first three words of the Constitution? (The United States, We the People, No More King, We are Free.) There are some harder ones when you get to the 99-question version, but hey, multiple choice? Almost anybody should be able to guess enough to reach the 60 percent passing mark.

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 “Until the middle of the 20th century, most American high schools offered three courses in civics and government, focusing on current events, civic engagement and democracy as a whole — topics that are now lumped together, and subjects for which schools are rarely held accountable for teaching well… Elementary education used to require a theme of civics in curricula, but no longer in most states… Educators are often expected to teach a range of subjects to include U.S. history, world history, civics, economics, government and geography versus focusing on and fine-tuning the details of one. They often lack more than the very minimum of formal training in the history they are responsible for teaching.”  Ashley Bateman, New York Post, 3 July 2014.

   My ability to do so well on the citizenship test was certainly helped by my reading and listening. I’ve learned some new things and refreshed my memory on some old. But, actually, I first learned almost everything that was on the test when I had “civics” classes in the 1940s and 1950s in elementary and high schools. I don’t recall any classes strictly on Government, but every Social Studies class (and we had one every semester) had a unit on how the Government worked. By the time I graduated high school, I may still have believed that George Washington couldn’t tell a lie, but at least I knew who would have followed him as President if he had died in office.

   If you’re a cynical type (like me), you might wonder why – since the country seems to be run by rich guys and political hacks - it’s important to know some of the things that aren’t taught in school, anymore. But maybe that’s the point. In the past decade, it seems clear that the people running our country have been confusing Capitalism and Party Loyalty with Democracy and Constitutionality. If some of them had a better grasp of our history and how Government was intended to operate, maybe it would make a difference. Maybe it wouldn’t, but then they - and we - would know why.


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© Sanford Wilbur 2019