Opinion

If we can require driver's ed for teens, then why not voter's ed?

Political apathy and civic ineptitude are stalling democracy in America. In order to get real change, we must amend the Constitution to require civics education and testing in America's schools.

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To prevent chaos on America’s streets, the law requires every driver to know the rules of the road before hitting the highway. When the stakes are high, testing for competency is essential. Yet, when it comes to voting, we let everyone participate once they turn 18.

We’ve always trusted history teachers to provide a fundamental understanding of government, but it’s not working. A 2007 Tufts study showed that only 50 percent of college students could name their US representative while 91 percent knew the winner of the TV show "Dancing with the Stars." In 2008, an Intercollegiate Studies Institute survey found that only 24 percent of college grads knew that the Constitution forbids the government from establishing a state religion.

Mandate Civics 101

This radical problem of civic illiteracy requires a radical solution. We should amend the Constitution to mandate Civics 101. Before he or she can vote for the first time, every young citizen must demonstrate a basic understanding of how our government works.

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Quiz: Can you pass a US citizenship test?

Under this proposal, states would retain the authority to design their own unique course, blending lessons related to federal and local government. Automatic eligibility of voting would rest upon the completion of a year-long civics course required in both public and private high schools. Every state has a similarly conceived system for awarding drivers’ licenses: Why isn’t it the same for voting?

Civic education is not a partisan issue. Whether electing conservatives or liberals, the country has suffered from consistently low turnout and disengaged citizens.

Even in the landmark 2008 election, less than six out of ten eligible voters made it to the polls. Recent college graduates are no more knowledgeable than their lesser-educated grandparents, and present-day schooling hasn’t created greater civic aptitude. Only 35 percent of Millennials know Congress can override a veto, and 49 percent think the president can suspend the Constitution.

According to think tank studies on both the left and right, social studies teachers believe that their subject matter is not viewed as “top priority” or even moderately important. An American Enterprise Institute report found that only “[f]orty-five percent say their school district treats social studies as an absolutely essential subject area, while 43 percent say it is considered important but not essential.”

Reversing the ugly trend in civics

Some in public life are taking positive steps to correct this. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is active as ever in her post-jurist days promoting iCivics, an interactive project to engage students with free digital “civic games” rooted in the democratic process. Her work is of staggering importance. As someone with a rich background in federal and state public service, she is an ideal advocate for further national legislation advancing civic education — even a constitutional Amendment.

"Now, we got public schools in this country to begin with because of the concern about the need to teach young people how to be good citizens, how our government works, so that everybody could participate. In recent years, the schools have stopped teaching it,” Justice O’Connor said in a recent PBS News Hour interview.

But one project isn’t enough to make up for the civics shortfall in secondary schools. That’s why we need drastic action. The next step is to nationalize O’Connor’s model with a Civics Amendment.

Bold steps would bring results

Unless civics is engrained in the nation’s social fiber from early childhood education through college, personal politics will remain a once-a-year venture to the polling booth for the few who actually show up on Election Day. The act of governance must be a perpetually inclusive and forward-thinking engagement among educated citizens.

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This program’s requirements should include essential readings on the diverse American political experience, from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address. Further, this course could include a daily reading of national and local newspapers coupled with frequent presentations on articles that students find compelling.

In addition to iCivics-oriented digital activities, the course ought to include fieldwork for students to learn about those cultivating civic engagement and crafting government policies. One valuable assignment would be for students to conduct interviews and develop a feature story on a problem concerning their township or city. Such in-the-trenches activities would culminate in a visit to the students’ election board to register to vote.

By the end of the program, students would know that citizenship is more than just a privilege, it’s a duty. Americans should understand how their local government works, what federals checks and balances mean, and how public policies affect their lives. Then, not only will they be prepared to vote and engage in town halls, they will want to.

If successfully implemented in public schools, this proposal will not hurt minorities and immigrants; it will only galvanize them to fulfill their full degree of citizenship. With the myriad of domestic and foreign challenges facing the next generation of Americans, the time for civic education is now.

Alexander Heffner, a history major at Harvard University, directs ScoopSeminar.org, a civic education and journalism initiative.

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