Rowdy politics aside, Americans are in a 'civics recession'

The presidential primaries give the impression of sharp citizenship skills among Americans. But civics learning lags. Obama education officials plan to reverse it.

AP Photo/Alice Keeney/file
A poll worker in Charleston, South Carolina, helps voters cast ballots in the state's 2008 presidential primary.

For all of the fireworks of US presidential contests, the rest of the world may think Americans are up on the basic civics of their democracy.

But they aren’t. And that has educators scratching their heads and looking for solutions.

Of the 172 democracies in the world, the United States ranks 139th in voter participation. Barely a third of Americans can name the three branches of government. More than half of college seniors recently flunked a civic literacy exam. And in half of US states, civics education isn’t even required in high school.

The problem has only worsened as both government and students push for the types of education that lead directly to available jobs and that also help the US economy become more globally competitive. Citizenship skills, such as the application of learning in community projects, gets shoved aside for job training.

The problem has a new term – a civics recession. And any number of groups are trying to reverse it.

This week, the US Department of Education began a campaign to uplift the nation’s “civic health,” mainly through reform of higher education. It sponsored a report called “A Crucible Moment,” compiled by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, that provides ways to restore one of higher education’s mission as the “carrier of democratic values.”

The task is not easy. “I know that we can’t easily measure civic consciousness or test it or boil it down to a number on a spreadsheet. But we value it and honor it because it is central to our identity as Americans,” says US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The report is an echo of one done for the Truman presidency – at the dawn of the cold war – that also tied higher education to democracy. As John Dewey, the famed educator of the early 20th century, put it: “Democracy needs to be born anew every generation, and education is the midwife.”

The report’s strongest point is that many employers prefer college graduates who know how to collaborate in large groups, organize teams for action, and address “public questions” with “civic inquiry.” Those skills are essential to the constant innovation required in an ever-changing economy.

Many schools already insist that students apply classroom knowledge to “real world” community problems. Parents have a role, too. A recent Harvard study found that children who had regularly attended Fourth of July celebrations turned into adults who voted more and who contributed more to political campaigns.

The 21st-century “knowledge economy” can also be a “citizenship economy.” The civics recession can end.

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