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April 29, 2011

Time for America to Stop Flunking Civics Ed

ABA President Stephen N. Zack

ABA President Stephen N. Zack

The end of the school year is coming, but grades are already in for the state of American civics education. And it’s not good news.  A recent report from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation on state history standards says bluntly that, a “majority of states’ standards are mediocre-to-awful.” The average grade across all states is barely a D. In 28 states — a majority — the history standards earn Ds or below. Eighteen earn Fs.

These failing grades for state systems reflect the sad state of Americans’ knowledge of their own country’s government.  A 2005 ABA-commissioned Harris Poll found many Americans struggling to name the three branches of government — in fact, more than a fifth thought the three branches were “Democrat,” “Republican” and “Independent.” Overall, a mere 20 percent of those polled by Harris showed a strong grasp of basic American government and civics.  A recent Newsweek cover story polled Americans using basic questions found on the U.S. Citizenship test, and many failed. The magazine’s own analysis was that “the country’s future is imperiled by our ignorance.”

Basic American values are in danger when we lose an understanding of our history. A government cannot survive if it is not understood and embraced by its people.

This lack of knowledge is unacceptable, especially because it’s a solvable problem. Currently, fewer than half of all states test students on their knowledge of civics or government. Civics needs to be counted as another basic, like reading and mathematics. If your state doesn’t yet require civics, push your legislature to change that. The C — for civics — is just as crucial to our future as a nation as are the three Rs.

At the national level, the Department of Education can help schools re-embrace civics classes by fostering a competitive grant funding program for civic education in elementary, middle and high schools that require civics classes.

Let’s also talk about our own responsibilities. We have a special role to play in protecting American constitutional democracy. Reread the Constitution and Bill of Rights, with an eye to founding principles like: religious freedom, presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial and separation of powers.  Pick up a book or watch a documentary film on John Adams, whose legacy is highlighted in this year’s Law Day theme. Adams’ decision to defend British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre is a vivid reminder of what courage looks like and what makes America special. Contribute an hour or two to lead a school civics class or discussion. Check out the ABA Law Day website for more ideas.

We are all busy, but preserving the rule of law in our own country is fundamental to who we are and what we believe. Make a little time to celebrate Law Day and protect everything for which our nation stands.

Learn More About:  Law DayZack, Stephen N.

Comments (4)

  • *Pingback*
    8:10 PM April 29, 2011
    This Post Referenced in: Home Schooling Hands On Home Schooling

    ... The end of the school year is coming, but grades are already in for the state of American civics educations. And its not good news. A recent report from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation on state history standards says bluntly that, a majority of states standards are mediocre-to-awful. The average grade across all states is barely a D. In 28 states a majority the history standards earn Ds…Read more » ...

  • pj casey
    11:58 AM May 10, 2011

    I recently heard an interview of the actor Richard Dreyfus on NPR in which Mr. Dreyfus expressed his concern for the abysmal decline our citizens’ basic grasp of how our country is designed to operate. It was a wakeup call to me. Growing up during the 60’s you couldn’t avoid the realization that “we the people” had tremendous power to change the country – its leaders, its laws, its foreign policy – and that without our active participation in shaping all of those, we couldn’t passively trust that our political leaders, the news media, or big business would automatically “do the right thing” because they were patriotic civil servants, principled journalists or wealthy aristocrats with a virtuous sense of noblesse oblige’. Our lack of knowledge of civics isn’t merely a measure of change from one age to another, comparable perhaps to young people today not knowing how to use a rotary phone or a manual typewriter. Civics is no anachronism. Our country is designed to operate based on the premise that all power resides with the governed, not first with the government, and that we delegate that authority as we freely and responsibly choose to those whom we deem most qualified to represent us, and to uphold the Constitution that we all submit to as the law of the land. Our lack of civic awareness means our country can’t work, not only the way it’s supposed to, but likely, at all. I am still amazed at the genius of our governmental system even as I wail at the TV screen, witnessing again and again the breakdown of our political processes at the hands of irresponsible politicians whom we elect and re-elect with impunity, as we accept and even promote entertainment as if it were actually news (i.e., a free and impartial press), and reward insatiable corporate greed and corruption as if it were a natural right. But the REAL problem is, we can’t even hold profitable debates among ourselves about these things because we, the collective electorate don’t really understand the civic processes which are at our fingertips to solve these epidemic problems.

    So I proclaim a hearty yes, amen, and hurrah for a revival of civic education!

  • J.Thomas
    9:06 AM May 11, 2011

    This is not a mistake….those in the Education System would rather future generations not know how things work so that they become reliant on the Government to take care of them, The government builds it’s base of power from those who are to weak willed and to weak minded to take care of themselves. An interesting note….fourty years ago 75% of white males between 18 and 40 worked to make a living….today it is below fifty percent, with eighty percent of those on some kind of Government assistance…..that is the sad state of things in this country! That is the cost of our failing to educate our children on hoe our country should work!

  • Judea I. Lawton
    9:42 PM June 6, 2011

    Since the students are failing, I propose we start with field trips to Congress, The Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court. I volunteer as a Tour Guide for the Library of Congress on Mondays from 2pm to 5pm, and I have been doing this for about 2 1/2 years now. Send me the students, and I will get then started by showing them the Rough Drafts of the Charters of Freedom. I can be reached at , I will be happy to help. I just took a group of newly sworn members of the ABA on a tour today. Judea I. Lawton, Washington, DC