A recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that only one in four Americans can name all three branches of government. One in three can’t name any.
And while President Donald Trump retweets anti-Muslim videos of questionable veracity and muses that news outlets critical of him should be banned, 37 percent of Americans can’t name any of the rights protected by the First Amendment, the survey found. (Hint: These include freedom of religion and freedom of speech.)
A functioning democracy depends on an informed citizenry, including baseline knowledge of societal laws and institutions. Bafflingly, many schools no longer teach children how our government works, and what basic rights Americans are guaranteed.
Between 2001 and 2007, 36 percent of American school districts decreased focus on social studies and civics, according to a study by George Washington University’s Center on Education Policy. By 2006, just 27 percent of 12th graders were proficient in civics and government, said the National Center for Education Statistics.
In 2011, all federal funding for civics was eliminated. By 2012, only nine states tested students for basic civics understanding as a prerequisite for high school diplomas.
That takes us to today. A 2017 assessment by the National Education Association sums up the problem: Civics education in America is skin deep, seldom reinforced and altogether inadequate.
Inexcusably, our schools have largely abandoned a crucial mission: producing functional, responsible citizens, the lifeblood of democracy.
The result is high school graduates who don’t understand what they’ve been pledging allegiance to each morning since kindergarten. No wonder why, in 2014, a study found, one in six Americans favored military rule over the government - up from one in 16 in 1995.
Worryingly, Americans are increasingly welcoming of autocracy. An August poll found that 61 percent of Trump’s supporters would support him no matter what.
This is especially frightening given the deepening investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential ties with Russia. An informed and insistent citizenry will be necessary to hold Trump accountable if evidence is unearthed proving collusion, obstruction of justice or other disqualifying deeds. In such instances, constitutional literacy is the best safeguard against constitutional crisis.
But this isn’t all about Trump, whose undemocratic leanings are a symptom of our widespread civic ignorance rather than its cause. Collective illiteracy of America’s rules and norms threatens more harm than dubious leadership.
As society evolves and progresses, understanding the laws and practices of our constitutional democracy give us the best chance to stay rooted in common principles.
That brings us back to our schools - public institutions that, ironically, are failing to prepare students for life in a republic.
When a large swath of the population doesn’t know the basic constitutional tenets in a democracy, they are less likely to hold elected leaders accountable for violating those rules, and more likely to abandon established principles amid fever-pitched popular sentiment, however righteous.
What we don’t know can hurt us, and continued ignorance will wreak snowballing consequences. Reintroducing and reviving civics education in our schools is a crucial part of the solution.
Christopher Dale writes on society, politics and sobriety-based issues. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Daily News, Parents.com and New York Newsday, among other outlets.