How disturbed should we be that 35 percent of American high school seniors can't demonstrate even a basic grasp of their system of government?
Or to put it another way, what kind of democracy can we expect in the future when only 26 percent of seniors have more than a rudimentary understanding of the political process?
Those numbers come from a test known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), whose organizers are sounding alarm bells over the results.
Parallels are being drawn between the country's sagging voter turnout (less than 20 percent for those age 18 to 25) and this paltry grasp of civics.
This is undoubtedly a matter for concern. Ideally, all citizens would have some understanding of the democratic process, and their role in it. But before getting too concerned about the future of the republic, we ought to consider a couple of things.
First, the NAEP civics assessment included questions that probably would throw many adults. Can the average person rattle off ways the American government is designed to prevent the exercise of absolute power? State the main purpose of the Bill of Rights? Or identify where primary responsibility for foreign affairs lies?
Second, this knowledge gap is not unbridgeable. The NAEP exams try to highlight areas that need improvement. Civics education can be strengthened. Students can be shown that few things will affect their well-being more than the operations of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. History, and today's news, provide ample examples of how government shapes individual lives - positively and negatively.
Then students can be shown that they, as individuals, can have a say in government - starting with voting, and moving on to other kinds of civic involvement.
So, yes, the low scores among the young are cause for concern. But civics instruction can, and should, be made interesting. And if the kids decide this is so, they may bring along some of their elders too.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society