Opinion and Taking Issue

KENNEDY: If we could just educate the politicians

January 14, 2012

Sheila Suess KennedyThe other day, I was grading a research paper submitted by a graduate student who shares my concerns over civic literacy. The paper included a review of available research on the topic, much of which confirmed what we had already known about the American public’s civic deficit.

But one finding floored me.

In 2008, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s American Civic Literacy Program released the results of a study that tested the civic literacy of the general public, college graduates and elected officials. More than 2,500 randomly selected people took ISI’s basic 33-question civic literacy exam, and more than 1,700 failed. The average score of the general public was 49 percent.

Far more troubling, however, only 30 percent of elected officials were able to identify “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence, only 32 percent of them could accurately define the free enterprise system, only 46 percent knew that Congress has the power to declare war, and only 49 percent could identify all three branches of government.

Perhaps most disheartening, the study concluded that not only were elected officials even less knowledgeable about American history and government than the general public, those citizens who were most knowledgeable about history, government and economics were the least likely to seek elective office.

That explains a lot. It also raises an important question: What is the minimum content of an adequate “civics” education?

In 1988, E.D. Hirsch generated a storm of controversy by arguing that, absent minimal cultural literacy, students didn’t understand what they read. Most critics accepted that premise; where Hirsch got into trouble was by listing what he considered the necessary knowledge.

Neither the general public nor elected officials need to be scholars or “intellectuals,” but we do need a shared informational framework for public deliberation. So—recognizing that I’m diving into Hirsch’s choppy waters—let me suggest what I believe to be essential civic knowledge.

1. Every student who graduates from high school should know basic American history. I don’t care if they know the year the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, but they should know who the Pilgrims and Puritans were, why we fought the American Revolution, and what the Enlightenment was and how it changed our definition of liberty and informed our approach to self-government and individual rights.

2. Every graduate should know the basics of American government: What are checks and balances? Separation of powers? What are the identities and duties of each of the three branches of government?

Citizens should be able to recognize and define the rights protected by the Bill of Rights. (When only 51 percent of Americans surveyed agree that newspapers should be allowed to publish without prior government approval, we are clearly failing to provide that education.)

3. Americans don’t need to know the definition of a neutron, or how to spot a fossil, but they do need to know what science and the scientific method are. And they should know the difference between scientific theory and casual use of that term to mean “guess.”

4. Our endless debates over tax and economic policies would benefit enormously if every student who graduated from high school could define “capitalism,” “socialism,” “fascism” and “mixed economy”; if they knew the difference between the national debt and the deficit; and the difference between marginal and effective tax rates. (I’m always astonished by the number of people who think that being in the 50-percent bracket means paying 50 percent of your income in taxes.)

Education reform is a hot topic right now. Basic civic knowledge needs to be at the top of that reform agenda.•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. Her column appears monthly. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com.

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