Do you know how many states must ratify a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution before it can take effect? Or what qualifications a person must have to be nominated as a justice of the Supreme Court? How about who serves as president in the case of a vacancy of that office, the vice-president and the Speaker of the House?
If you are unsure, you aren't alone. A recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania showed that only 26% of Americans polled could correctly name the three branches of our federal government. And more than 40% polled could not even name the current vice-president!
The United States is suffering a crisis when it comes to civic education. As we have moved through the post-modern era, our educational priorities have shifted. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with an enhanced focus on early childhood literacy and STEM education, it has become obvious that civics has become the unintentional casualty.
A few months ago, I was honored to be named to the Civic Health Subcommittee of the Council of State Governments Healthy States Task Force. The subcommittee is chaired by the Secretaries of State in Maine and Ohio and is a bipartisan group comprised of lieutenant governors, legislators, judicial and other government officials representing 12 various states. Our charge is to examine policies related to voting, civic education and participation, and those designed to increase public trust and interface with government. Easy peasy, right?
It’s a tall challenge, but one that we have all found critical. The statistics I cited from the Annenberg Center above are only the tip of the iceberg. Survey after survey demonstrates that Americans’ knowledge of how our government is structured and operates is not only lacking, but diminishing each year. Granted, I didn’t need the actual data to tell me this. Reading the comments on a newspaper website or scrolling through social media posts make it clear that people have little understanding of our government.
Is this really a problem though? Are the questions I led off with pertinent to our lives or more apt to simply be a clue on Final Jeopardy? While there may be some truth to that, the long-term effect could be severely detrimental to our nation. The less a person understands about government, the less likely they are to engage in it. And with this vacuum, it becomes a smaller group who makes the decisions that affect us all. With less engaged and educated voices, government becomes an echo chamber and makes moves that might not best represent the views of the greater society. Danger lurks in places like that, for as Lord Acton said, power tends to corrupt.
My father taught seventh grade civics for much of his career. And, admittedly, I have a predilection towards the subject. Like my father, I majored in history and government in college. So, hearing talk of government, politics and civics around the dinner table was not an unusual occurrence. I now recognize that might have not been a typical conversation at many houses and that I had the great fortune to learn at the feet of a master. (Before I sound like a complete nerd, though, I will quickly add that there were also many conversations about golf, cattle and the starting rotation of the ’55 Dodgers.)
There is no doubt, however, that these conversations need to start taking place more frequently. Ideally, they would take place in a classroom setting where there is accountability. However, it cannot just stop there. These conversations must happen around the family dinner tables, the local diners, the community meetings, and everywhere else. If people do not understand the government they have, they run the risk of not having it.
Author Alexander McCall Smith put it bluntly when he said, “It seems to me that we’re in danger of losing sight of certain basic civic values in society by allowing the growth of a whole generation of people who really have no sense of attachment to society.”
Allowing is the key word in that quotation. We have to take ownership of the fact that we have failed so many by not pushing civic education harder. The good news is, unlike a Dodgers game, there is no certain end. We have time to coalesce and work towards correcting the issue. Our nation depends on it.
Oh, and for the record, the answers to the questions I led off with are: three-fourths, none, and the Senate president pro tempore.
Tommy Druen is a syndicated columnist. He is a 10th-generation Kentuckian who resides in Scott County. He can be reached at email@example.com.