The global challenge from COVID-19 has placed a special burden on democracies. They must rely on citizens being able to understand how their leaders operate as well as their own role in the crisis. The pandemic severely tests democracies, says German Chancellor Angela Merkel, because it “restricts exactly the things that make up our existential rights.”
In the United States, for example, rules on social distancing have made voting difficult in state primaries. The November elections could be significantly affected. Yet the challenges go even deeper: How far can elected officials go to end the coronavirus threat, such as closing down much of the economy? Exactly where do responsibilities lie between the president, Congress, governors, state legislatures, mayors, and so on?
Another concern is the potential erosion of privacy. Techniques to trace where the virus may have spread involve tracking the movements of individuals and who they have associated with. This could include collecting data from cell phones. Should citizens allow trade-offs that reduce their privacy but help reduce the disease’s spread? Some privacy advocates worry that once a government uses such intrusions it may be reluctant to give them up.
These questions require thoughtful public discussions with careful attention from informed citizens. Yet in a worrisome sign of the civic maturity in the U.S., a new survey shows a large majority of eighth grade students are still unable to comprehend the basics of democracy. Fewer than one-quarter are “proficient” in civics education, such as understanding the rights and duties of citizens, according to a report in April from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
American eighth graders in fact have made no progress since the last time the test was administered in 2014. “In a moment when our society is discussing what government should and can do amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we clearly see the value of a strong civics education,” said Patrick Kelly, a government and politics teacher in Columbia, South Carolina, and a member of NAEP’s governing board.
One ray of light: The half of eighth graders who reported having taken a class focused mainly on civics and U.S. government scored higher than those who said they hadn’t taken such a class. Only eight states now require high school students to take a full year of civics classes, according to a study by Education Week in 2018.
The federal government spends heavily on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, in an effort to prepare students for today’s workplace. Even a tiny fraction of that money spent in support of civics education could yield big dividends as well.
State and local governments have their role, too. In Rhode Island, for example, a bipartisan bill under consideration called the Civic Literacy Act would require all students to complete a year-long course in civics and government somewhere between the 8th and 12th grades.
Literacy in civics plays another role. Autocratic leaders around the world are using the pandemic as an excuse to increase their control. The world’s democracies must demonstrate how effective action during a public health emergency need not result in permanent restrictions on individual freedoms.
In shoring up public health with public consent, a well-informed citizenry is not only necessary, it can also spread the ideals of liberty and self-governance to countries where there are none.