Retired University of California Berkeley Professor Phillip E. Johnson once declared, "Constitutional democracy is in serious trouble if its citizenry doesn't have a certain degree of education and civic virtue."
If society is to be bolstered and our communities made stronger, Washington state citizens need a heavy dose of civic learning. It's in the best interest of the citizens of our beloved state to encourage greater study of U.S. history, economics, government and foreign policy through education efforts in schools and everywhere.
We are affiliated with the Washington Policy Center, the largest free-market think tank in the Pacific Northwest. Its Center for Education is dedicated to managing educational resources in a responsible way, among other things, but it should adopt civic learning as a prominent plank in its educational platform.
A greater emphasis on civic learning will produce not only well-educated graduates, but also responsible citizens, aware of the world around them and prepared to meet public leadership challenges that lie ahead.
The evidence of a failed civic education policy is all around us.
Several years ago, Newsweek published a story identifying the results of 1,000 random Americans taking the kind of immigrant citizenship test that applicants for American citizenship must pass. The results showed the ignorance of too many citizens, some unable to name the vice president, circle Independence Day on a calendar or identify how many years a U.S. senator is elected to serve.
Likewise, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) administered a similar civics test to 14,000 college freshmen and seniors from 50 American universities, testing their general knowledge of U.S. history, government, foreign policy and economics. All except Harvard students flunked the exam. Harvard students scored an underwhelming D+.
Later, ISI gave the civics test to 3,500 adults. The average score was an unimpressive 49 percent, with those who previously served as public officials scoring an abysmal five percentage points worse than the average adult.
In 2012, the George Nethercutt Foundation surveyed 800 Americans nationally asking three questions: Should elected officials be knowledgeable about civics? Seventy-four percent said yes. Should America’s schools focus education efforts on civic learning? Eighty-five percent said yes. Should all Americans be able to pass the immigrant citizenship test that applicants for citizenship must pass? Sixty-seven percent said yes, likely reflecting Americans’ fear of having to take such an exam.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), administered periodically by the U.S. Department of Education, shows a disturbing lack of civics proficiency among American students. Though Washington state has enacted laws requiring graduating high school seniors to have one semester of civics to graduate, that’s not enough.
Civic learning is nonpartisan. Democrats and Republicans alike favor citizens knowing how America came to be, understanding basic constitutional principles and appreciating America’s unique characteristics over its more than 200-year history.
Prominent think tanks, such as the Washington Policy Center, can lead our nation by emphasizing greater civic learning in its support for responsible educational policies. If prominent leaders support enhanced civic learning, it will secure civics as a top education priority and can lead to higher voting percentages in national and local elections, greater numbers of candidates seeking to lead their communities because they’re more knowledgeable about issues affecting their neighbors and higher percentages of citizens engaging in the crafting of public policies. Civic learning can be a catalyst for citizen action.
We therefore call on policymakers, thought-leaders and organizations that care about the future of young people – our next generation of leaders – to support educational efforts to enhance civic learning.
Doing so is good for students, good for citizens, good for Washingtonians and good for America.
George R. Nethercutt Jr. served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995-2005. Brian Sonntag was state auditor from 1993 to 2013.