America’s Civic Illness

December 24, 2020

Jeffrey Sikkenga

by Jeffrey Sikkenga, Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center

Even while we face the coronavirus and the terrible harm it has done to our country, we learned yesterday that America has contracted another kind of disease – a civic illness.

The disturbing news came from the Department of Education, which released results of the quadrennial National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in U.S. history, civics and geography, given in 2018 to thousands of American 8th graders.

The test scores in American history and civics were particularly alarming, with only 24 percent of students performing at or above the “proficient” level in civics and an anemic 15 percent exhibiting a satisfactory knowledge and understanding of American history. The civics score was approximately level with the result achieved by eighth-grade students in 2014, the last time the three tests were given; the U.S. history score declined four percentage points from 2014. Some 16,400 students took the history test; 13,400 were tested in civics.

The results make clear that too many young people around the country don’t know the basic facts of U.S. history and government. More important, they also don’t adequately understand the fundamental principles that guide our country.

Worse still, those of us who follow such matters are not surprised. For decades, U.S. schools have been forced or indirectly encouraged to downplay the importance of civic education. State and federal standards and money have too often emphasized STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – over U.S. history and civics. This is especially true with regards to teaching the history and principles of our country’s founding, which is often shortchanged—and even ridiculed—by many contemporary historians.

Of course, we need good scientists and engineers; but we are forgetting something critical for America’s future. Math scores matter, but not every American will be a mathematician. Science scores matter too, but not everyone will be a scientist. Every American will be a citizen, however. It’s a lifetime job. What young people learn – or don’t learn – about our history and government will shape the course of our country’s future.

Our Founders called America an experiment in whether people really can govern themselves. If we can’t govern ourselves, we aren’t really free and equal. Someone else – a king, an aristocrat, a government official – has to tell us what to do. As James Madison put it, we “rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”

But how can we govern ourselves if the next generation of Americans does not have the civic knowledge required to be wise citizens and leaders? Every day, we see signs that “We’re all in this together.” But how can we stay together unless we know what makes us “one people,” as our Declaration of Independence calls us?

Fortunately, there’s a vaccine for our ignorance.  We need to restore the proper teaching of American history and civics to its rightful place at the center of American education.

Students need to go back to America’s past and ask it questions, starting with our Founding. They need to study great documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Not just read about them in boring textbooks, but read the documents themselves, for themselves. Have great conversations with those great minds – discover for themselves the story of America in the words of those who lived it.

This kind of education works. It can restore our understanding of the principles that make us Americans.  It can help young people see America’s history as a struggle – however imperfect – to live up to our principles of freedom and justice. It can help us all to understand why our country – despite its past struggles – deserves our admiration and affection.

The NAEP results have diagnosed our civic disease. Now it’s up to us to try to cure it.