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Crisis in Civis Education – Case in Point

September 28, 2011

The Detroit Free Press carried commentary today on the state of civics education in America.  The survey results the author discusses are as disheartening as they are unsurprising:  Only tiny minorities of our children know our history, governmental structure or the importance of either.  Can it be that only 9% of fourth-graders know why Abraham Lincoln is important, that 7% of eighth graders can name the three branches of government, and so forth?  From this writer’s observation of otherwise intelligent and engaged students over the years, the answer is ‘yes.’

The United States, and each state, county and city, to a greater or lesser degree, was constituted on principles of self-government.  That we have gone so long with an educational system that does not teach basic American history and government, or civics, if you prefer, is astounding.  The above-mentioned article correctly notes that the horrific “No Child Left Behind”(NCLB) law, itself of highly questionable Constitutionality, exacerbated this trend, as it requires force-feeding of two subjects – math and English – to students, in the vain hope that all will become proficient in them, and with schools under the threat of sanctions if they do not perform.  ‘Teaching the test’ is a sin in itself; to let the tests drive entire academic subjects out of the curriculum is borderline criminal.  However, we should not blame this ill-considered law alone; it merely accelerated a trend, dating back to the 1960s, to de-emphasize American history and government, to denigrate our civilization when it is the subject of academic inquiry, and to disfavor its’ centrality to and connection with the experience of engaged citizenship.  What we don’t teach we should not expect students, over-scheduled as they are now (itself a topic worthy of its’ own treatment), to learn it on their own.  They don’t even know that it is important for them to do so.

Thankfully, President Obama is acting to undo the most pernicious feature of NCLB by offering states the option of opting out of its’ utopian requirements.  Perhaps, unburdened by NCLB, states and localities will think about what they will do with the time and resources freed up after they opt out.  If they do stop to think about their curricula, the more voices that are raised on behalf of civics – that homely field of study that includes topics like, “How a bill becomes a law” – the greater the chances that we can arrest our drift into an ignorance of, and an indifference to self-government whose offspring will surely be tyranny, no matter what outward form it takes.

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