Mark My Words: Revamping Civics 101

Americans' ever-growing ignorance on issues of civics and history is nearing a tipping point that can, and will, threaten the very nature of our republic. Failing to address quality civics education in America will lead to political abuses and an erosion of constitutional protections.

According to the New York Times, barely 10% of American eighth graders demonstrated passing knowledge of our government branches, and fewer than half could explain the purpose of the Bill of Rights. High school students fared no better; 75% of graduating seniors were unable to name a single power the Constitution grants Congress.

Unfortunately, the problem is not limited to students. Multiple generations of Americans do not understand how our government works because of the lack of civics education. A recent Zogby poll found that while 78% of American adults could name the “Three Stooges,” only 42% could name the three branches of government.

These are not just educational problems; these are foundational steps towards the dissolution of our democratic governance as we know it.

Thomas Jefferson called an informed public the “only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty,” noting that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

Benjamin Franklin extolled the importance of an informed citizenry, warning that “it is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins.”

Americans' inability to understand and contextualize their country's history and government actions creates an environment ripe for abuse. Political leaders seeking to take advantage of collective ignorance flourish by recreating history and reshaping government to their liking.

One does not have to search for long before finding a plethora of recent examples. Just last week, Sarah Palin made headlines with a disjointed and revisionist explanation of Paul Revere’s midnight ride. Instead of apologizing and correcting herself, she doubled-down and claimed that her account was correct. The worst part is that her supporters flooded common knowledge sources like Wikipedia to try and update history so that her words rang true.

A few months prior, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) informed a surprised New Hampshire audience that their state was "where the shot was heard around the world at Lexington and Concord.” At least she acknowledged her statement's inaccuracy, though she did blame the media for bringing attention to her flub.

Those are just innocent historical mistakes. But what happens when misunderstanding history leads to ignorance of the government’s responsibility and power?

The aftermath of 9/11 is a perfect example of egregious government abuse carried out in broad daylight. After the attacks, 58% of American citizens believed that Arabs — even those who were U.S. citizens — should be required to undergo special, intensive security checks before boarding airplanes; 51% believed the government should make them carry a special ID.

As late as 2004, nearly half of the general population supported the detention of Arab-Americans, even without enough evidence to prosecute them.

While the immediate reaction to such blatantly unconstitutional suggestions should be one of revulsion, Americans' active ignorance keeps these proposals alive and well.

As recently as a month ago, roughly 40% of Americans think it is acceptable for a president to ignore a U.S. Supreme Court ruling if the president believes it is necessary to protect against terrorist attacks. When less than half the population can even correctly identify how many Supreme Court Justices there are, is this any surprise?

As Americans, it is just as important to teach our children to be responsible and engaged citizens as it is to prepare them for a job or marriage. An informed citizenry is the cornerstone of a democratic society. Educated citizens are able to comprehend government action and contextualize it with modern needs and historical considerations. Citizens versed in government processes are able to independently evaluate the efficacy of government programs and suggest rational alternatives.

An ignorant citizenry tears down these democratic foundations in favor of emotional rhetoric and misleading information. By failing to understand how and why government works, we as Americans forego the immense responsibility of being the republic's caretakers.

If we do not improve future generations' civic education, we will be setting the stage for power-hungry politicians to run rampant over our historical roots because we are simply too ignorant to know any better. In doing so, we forfeit the blessings of liberty bestowed upon us by the very people who founded our government. 

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