ARLENE VIOLET - Our civics education is awful

ARLENE VIOLET - Our civics education is awful

As Rhode Islanders focus on the just completed Presidential primaries, it’s wise to stop and consider the education level of the populace is on civic matters. The picture is not pretty. Ignorance abounds.

So-called educated people – including college students – are woefully devoid of knowledge of American history and heritage. Studies confirm that universities are doing little or nothing to address the gap and students are coming to universities without much of a clue about how our system of government works.

Teachers and parents apparently have a hole in their knowledge as well. An annual survey by the Newseum Institute documented that one-third of Americans could not name a single right under the First Amendment to the Constitution. College seniors at the 55 top-ranked colleges failed to identify the significance of Valley Forge, recognize key words from the Gettysburg Address or even basic facts about the Voting Rights Act. If grades were given out for their knowledge 80 percent of college students would have received a “D” or an “F.” Some 10 percent of these collegians thought that “Judge Judy” was on the Supreme Court!

How did we get to such a situation? Despite a chorus of concerns about the woeful education at lower grades, little improvement has been made in the civic knowledge of K-12 students. In fact, when the survey was conducted among college students the questions were borrowed from standard high school civics curricula. Only one in five students could identify James Madison as the Father of our Constitution. More than half of the collegians did not know how this country can amend the Constitution. Forty percent didn’t know that Congress has the power to declare war. Most didn’t know that a presidential impeachment trial is before the U.S. Senate. Less than 20 percent could accurately identify the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. Their parents reflected the same deficiencies. Only folks over 65 had a better grasp of history and civics.

What should we be doing about civics education? First of all, the country needs a renewed commitment to the idea that human fulfillment is to be found in liberty or self-government. Ethnic or genetic inheritance is not the unifier of us as citizens. “E Pluribus Unum,” – From Many, One – is the connecting fiber of the country. Education at all levels has to prepare each generation to participate in a democratic republic and to understand the struggles that sustain our liberty. As noted in the report recently released by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, civics education is not a jingoistic attempt to insist that America has no blemishes or to hide its darker moments of failure. It is about stressing that the government “of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” This is the cause for which our ancestors fought. “They did not merely die for hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet” (Wilfred McClay).

It’s far past time to tune up civics education. Colleges should require at least one course in the history of America, its workings, and the core documents which enshrine the principles of government. There should be mandatory tests on civics similar to the math and English tests administered today. All of us should confront the crisis in civic education and restore widespread awareness of our history and government. Only then can we be able to keep the republic without losing it (Benjamin Franklin).

Violet is an attorney and former state attorney general.


that certain elites in Washington (and by that I mean all of them) don't want us knowing how our country should work for fear of losing their position in their ivory towers????

Most discouraging is also when you have elected officials, such we have here in Cumberland, with Town Councilman-At-Large Art Lambi, who for 2-elections in a row, rather then encouraging proper and conscientious political involvement in the election process, the setting a good example for the still learning youth of the community, Mr. Lambi very vociferously encourages "Bullet-Voting"...just vote for Me, Me, Me, Me! That when 2-Indivuals must be (need be) elected.

Common Core focuses on ELA and Math and virtually ignores social studies, history, and geography, depriving children of a solid educational foundation.

The American people aren't supposed to know how government works.
What we were taught in public schools 30-40 years ago is not what happens in government at all.
Nobody taught us about corruptness, yet it happens every day in government.
Nobody taught us about back door deals, yet it happens every day in government.
Nobody taught us that when a bill is submitted to the general assembly or to congress, that it is not submitted as a bill alone. But yet, it is also inclusive of many hidden agendas and pay backs that go along with it.
Nobody taught us that if a bill for highway tolls would be presented to the general assembly, that state representatives would be FORCED to vote for it, otherwise feel the wrath of the GA president.

Also, "No student left behind" was the worst possible thing we could have done to our youth. Students have been graduating that were simply passed through the school system, year after year, without needing to achieve passing grades. So long as they "tried", they are moved along. Students are graduating without knowing many subjects.
Lastly, things that should be taught in school, but aren't, are subjects like personal finance. Personal financial debt is at a greater level than ever before, and our students are coming out of high school and almost immediately taught to get student loans for college or go out and get car loans.

Arlene, with respect, you mix "history" and "civics" to freely. Which is easier: learning 200 years of American history or learning 250 years? Is it also easier to retain information when you have actually experienced it rather than 3rd hand? Ask a 12 year old the difference between Desert Shield and Desert Storm. That's not fair. Now ask a 70 yr old the difference between HTML and XML. Also not fair. What you value isn't always what others value. How is it that 250 years of American history can span 4 semesters, while 5000 years of World history can be taught in one course? That's a little lopsided. So, you can forgive someone for remembering that John Adams is the 2nd President, but forgetting who number 6 is. (I already gave you a hint)

Learning French is easy when you speak it at home. Math tends to require less brainpower when you there is no such thing as multi-variable calculus. Science? Oh boy. Pluto is not even a planet anymore. Information is cumulative. A kid's brain has a finite capacity. Luckily we are in the Social Age. Information is no longer in a's all around you. The only reason you know 12x12 is 144 is because you memorized it. So when I ask 14x14, you have no idea...even though the same math principles apply. Expand that out beyond math. Is it valuable to know who John Quincy Adams was? Or can we leave that to Wikipedia and get it on the fly? Does the number of US Reps have any bearing on anything? (Well other than getting a green card or playing trivia). You like Valley Forge, I like Menlo Park. If you don't know what that is, try Google ;)

That was history. Civics is a whole different animal. What's funny about civics is it tends to be trendy. When times are good, civics takes a backseat. When things are in turmoil, that's when every vote counts. People tend to be aware of their rights only after they have been violated. Arlene made a point of making a clear distinction between the young and the old, favoring the civic-mindedness of the 65+ crowd. Here I sit in my home in Woonsocket. I recall the last election cycle, the people overwhelmingly voted away their right to elect a school committee. In Woonsocket, the voting majority tends to be older. So by extension, the elderly voted out the youth's right to vote. Which Social Studies class is this taught?

That said, a couple weeks ago we organized and attended a voting initiative where the council members, the state reps, and Secretary of State fielded questions and opinions in front of a packed house. Civic duty, participation, and education was the theme. The result will be the largest voter turnout in recent decades.

Education is a financial movement that focuses on pay and benefits not results.
There is no merit based teaching based on improvement and innovative ways to teach our diverse student population. Many problems are not addressed and those that are just minimize the education value.