While many American educators bemoan the ``civic illiteracy'' of recent generations of students and debate what should be done to combat it, one of their number has come up with a simple twist on an old idea that addresses the problem directly. The national Citizen Bee, inspired by the long-established national Spelling Bee, was staged here recently.
The Close-Up Foundation, which brings 23,000 students to Washington each year to learn about the democratic process, sponsored the competition. Foundation officials say they see the Citizen Bee as the ``perfect vehicle'' to combat civic illiteracy.
But the concept of the Citizen Bee was originated by Robert Clarke, a professor of political science at Grand Valley State College in Allendale, Mich.
``My daughter participated in the Spelling Bee,'' Dr. Clarke explains. ``I was impressed by how much she learned and the discipline. I thought it would be nice to revise the format for government, something I was interested in.
``I'm really concerned about democracy, about the requisites, about people not just voting, but knowing what they're voting for, and caring about their fellow citizens.''
Close-Up spokesmen cite a recent study by the National Assessment for Education Progress in which two-thirds of the high school students surveyed could not place the Civil War in the correct half-century. One-third did not know the Declaration of Independence was signed between 1750 and 1800.
The 21 students from five states who participated in the Citizen Bee finals here had the answers to those questions, and more. The finalists -- from Arizona, Delaware, Kansas, Michigan, and Texas -- were winners in local competitions in which 1,600 students -- 10th, 11th, and 12th graders -- from 239 schools participated.
This was the first year the Citizen Bee competition was held outside of Michigan. Clarke said that after three years of coordinating the competitions in Michigan, he felt ready to take it nationwide. Eleven more states will join in next year, for a total of 16.
Obviously in need of help in running the mushrooming competition, Clarke said coming under the umbrella of Close-Up was a ``perfect marriage.''
Stephen A. Janger, president of the Close-Up Foundation, said, ``The Citizen Bee is the best outreach to make learning about the country exciting. Spelling words is one thing, but talking about history, politics, and current events is altogether different. You start to understand how it connects, how it all fits together.''
First place winner Melinda Simmons, who graduated from Chanute, Kan., high school this spring, said she studied nightly for several months in preparation for the contest.
Simmons won a $3,000 college scholarship. The second and third finishers got $2,000 and $1,000 scholarships. Second-place winner was Jeff Greenip, a Houston, Tex., high school senior. Kirk Shueler of Nortonville, Kan., and Joel Kuenster of Scottsdale, Ariz., tied for third.
Citizen Bee originator Clarke noted, ``If democracy is going to work, it has got to work here. People need an information base to make the right choices. We will keep extending the questioning to call for understanding and not memorization -- questions that explain background for why this is important in a bigger context.'' Some basic questions to test `civic literacy' Here are four of the easier questions participants in the national Citizen Bee were asked:
1. How are amendments to the Constitution proposed?
2. Which amendment prohibited slavery?
3. What does the term ``gross national product'' mean?
4. What two states have the largest number of electoral votes? How many can you answer before peeking at the answers printed (upside down) below?
1. Congress can propose amendments to the Constitution by two-thirds vote of both House and Senate. If two-thirds of the state legislatures (34 at present) support a convention for proposing Constitutional amendments, Congress must call such a convention. Amendments must be ratified by three-fourth of the states.
2. The 13th Amendment. 3. It refers to the dollar value of goods and services produced in the United States. 4. California and New York.