American Truth: civics education
PADUCAH — The American public lacks basic knowledge about the Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the workings of the federal government. A 2011 Newsweek survey found that 70 percent of Americans didn’t know that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land.
A survey by C-SPAN found that 90 percent of likely voters agreed that the U.S. Supreme Court had an impact on their lives, yet 57 percent couldn’t name a single justice on the court. A 2015 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found 12 percent of Americans thought that the Bill of Rights included the right to own a pet.
These statistics are startling, but there are examples of how school systems are trying to curb the growing trend, and prevent future generations from lacking a civics education. After all, civics is the study of how to be a good American citizen, and should be the goal of all Americans.
Ross Kelley teaches government and politics at Paducah Tilghman High School. In his class, your opinion is not only welcomed, it’s encouraged.
“I think some teachers, some adults, (think) kids should just know their place. No! In my classroom, you come in, you disagree as long as you have a cogent point. Make your point known. As long as you can argue, we’re good,” Kelley laughed.
The topics discussed in Kelley’s classroom are both timely and important. “We’re trying to get them not just to get a check mark so they can get a diploma. We’re trying to get them to be engaged, active citizens,” Kelley said.
“We want to make sure that everyone understands why government happens the way it happens. We want to make sure they understand how they can get involved and impact the world in the future. You’re a citizen of the United States, and you have every right to speak out. You have every right to get involved. You have every right to run for office. You have every right cast your vote in any way that you want,” he said.
While it appears students at Paducah Tilghman and other high schools are learning why it’s important to be an informed, engaged citizen, a large number of Americans lack civic literacy.
Additional studies by Annenberg Public Policy Center reveal only 26 percent of those polled can name all three branches of government.
Fifty-plus years ago, civic literacy was more of a focus in classrooms across the country compared to today, but there’s a renewed effort to change things.
In 2009, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor founded the nonprofit iCivics with the goal to transform civic education for every student in America.
Emma Humphries is chief education officer for the nonprofit.
“We’re a small but mighty mission-driven organization. We make learning resources. We make lesson plans. We make web quests. We make literacy tools. But what we’re really most known for are our online role playing games,” Humphries said.
Dozens of games teach kids about government, politics, the electoral college, and the presidency. According to the nonprofit’s website, 200,000 teachers have used iCivics to educate roughly 5 million students in all 50 states, and the effort continues.
“We’re hearing and seeing a lot of calls for civic education. A lot of folks feel like we’re sort of in this unique political moment, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about the future of our democratic republic. And we see this from all sides. Folks from both sides of the isle, a different and ideological persuasions and what a number of people have rightly identified is that we stopped teaching civic education,” Humphries said.
Addie Rogers, Joe Price and Maci Robinson are all students in Mr. Kelley’s class, and all understand what they’re learning is important now and in the future.
“Part of becoming an engaged citizen, and therefore becoming, like, a productive adult for the future is learning how that works,” Rogers said.
Price said: “The laws that are made are the ones that we have to live under, so it’s incredibly important that everybody understands how the government works, and what laws mean, and how they impact us, and all that stuff — because, if not, you’re just living in a vacuum.”
And Robinson said she sees people learning about government and politics as a type of greater service.
“Service to our community — using their talents and their knowledge to serve our country and their community in the best way they can,” Robinson said.
Thomas Jefferson wrote “wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.”
Those wise words from one of our nation’s founding fathers are worth remembering as a new generation of citizens prepares to live their lives.
“As long as you are engaged in the civic process, as long as you are voting, as long as you are at least paying attention to the news, watching what’s happening in the world, then you’re being a positive impact on our country,” Kelley said.
An in-depth examination of the state of civics education in America conducted by the Center for American Progress in February 2018 revealed that states vary on civics course requirements and civics graduation requirements. In Illinois, students are required to take a civics course, but are not required to take a civics exam to graduate. In Kentucky, the opposite is true. There’s no civics course required, but Kentucky does require a civics exam to graduate. In both Missouri and Tennessee, students are required to both take a civics course and pass a civics exam in order to graduate.