Happy 236th birthday! And while we’re at it, take a bow for everything you do for us. Even after all these years, you’re still a remarkable lady.
Unfortunately, the reason we’re writing is neither to pass along happy returns nor to express appreciation. The reason is to apologize.
The fact is that we — your citizens and residents — are treating you pretty shabbily.
Since your birth, almost two and a half centuries ago, there’s been a clear arrangement. We the people vote, understand your past and present, and contribute to our communities. In return, you guard the founding principles, create prosperity and protect us from the threats of an unpredictable world.
The importance of this process — sometimes called “civic engagement” — is critical to our national fabric. It’s our collective voices that create government and business agendas, ensure accountability and preserve the ideals that underpin our society. Without this active involvement, to paraphrase Yeats, America will fall apart, the center cannot hold.
Unfortunately, we individuals have been reneging on our part of the agreement. Recently, we’ve been caught red-handed, our misdeeds exposed in two reports: “Fault Lines In Our Democracy” from the Educational Testing Service and “Guardian of Democracy” from the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. Here’s some of the evidence.
• Only one-third of Americans could name all three branches of government. One-third couldn’t name any.
• On the 2010 National Assessment of Education Progress, the “nation’s report card,” only about one-quarter of our high school seniors are “proficient” in civics (e.g. they can define “melting pot” and argue whether it applies to the United States).
• Only one in five Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 reads a newspaper. Only one in ten regularly clicks on a news Web page.
• In the areas of civic knowledge, only 5 percent of Americans were deemed competent in economics, 10 percent in geography, 11 percent in domestic issues, and 14 percent in foreign affairs.
• Turnout of eligible voters for the 2008 presidential election was high by our standards but still less than 60 percent. That means nearly 100 million failed to vote. (Asked why, one-third said they were too busy/forgot, and one-quarter said they’re not interested/it won’t matter.)
When we examine these data more closely, clear patterns emerge: They’re called education and age. In 2008, here’s who voted by education level: 39 percent of high school drop outs, 68 percent of those with some college, 83 percent of those with a master’s or higher. Here’s who voted by age group: 48 percent of those 18 to 24; 63 percent of those 35 to 44; 72 percent of those 55 to 75.
So what’s the fix? Guardian of Democracy lays it out for us: “Knowledge of our system of governance and our rights and responsibilities as citizens is not passed through the gene pool. Each generation of Americans must be taught these basics. Families and parents have a key role to play, yet our schools remain the universal experience we all have to gain civic knowledge and skills.”
This solution will come as no surprise to those in our schools. In recent focus groups held by the College Board and Hart Research, students and teachers were asked about the purposes of high school. Their answer was very clear: The purpose of schooling cannot be limited to traditional academic learning. Schools must also teach citizenship, personal responsibility, lifelong learning and problem solving.
Can schools prepare students for college, train the workers of the future, create good citizens, and develop responsible individuals, all with too few and unstable resources? Possibly. But the current debates about school reform are not adequate. While talking about teachers or measuring academic performance or discussing who controls our schools is important, we must focus on one subject: what we want our students to know and be able to do. That is the only way we will produce the kinds of students, workers, and citizens we need.
In the ETS report, Robert Maynard Hutchins, the visionary former president of the University of Chicago is quoted as saying, “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”
That comment, made in 1954, is as true today as it was more than a half-century ago. In the past we have overcome many serious challenges. We can do so again, but it will require that we respond with energy and commitment.
America, happy birthday once again, and we hope that next year we’ll be back with a better report.
Your residents and citizens