A Civic-Minded Public

Democracy can't function well if citizens don't have a basic understanding of how their government works.

A recent report by the nonpartisan Albert Shanker Institute found that many states give history and civics courses short shrift, emphasizing reading and math instead. The results are plain: In the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (2001), only 17 percent of eighth-graders scored at the proficient or advanced level in US history. Fewer than half knew the Supreme Court ruled on a law's constitutionality. A mere one-third knew what the Progressive Era was. Most didn't even know whom the US fought in World War II.

It's worth asking whether that lack of civics education is a factor in the declining voter turnout among young people (32 percent in 2000 compared with 41 percent in 1992.) Might it also account for soldiers' families complaining about long tours of duty and about sending National Guard troops to Iraq? Could such complaining reflect a society losing its civic values because schools aren't teaching them?

Applicants for US citizenship must demonstrate a knowledge of the federal government's organization, the way laws are made, the concept of separation of powers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and the content of the Bill of Rights, among other facts related to governance. Surely children born in the US and educated in American schools should be able to display the same level of knowledge.

To its credit, Congress is trying to boost interest in this area. It recently hosted a civics-education conference to help the idea gain momentum. The Senate passed a civics-education bill last summer; a similar measure has yet to pass the House. The legislation aims to ensure that schools better educate students on government. Such knowledge can only help spur greater interest in governance and encourage a more active citizenry.

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