Better politics, smarter government

Civics education is critical for American democracy

I'm preparing to teach a class at Southern Illinois University next spring on restoring American statesmanship and I'm struck by the critical connection between engaged citizenship and successful statesmanship.

Put simply, active citizens expect – and even demand – more from their leaders than less engaged ones. Informed and concerned citizens care about good government and often reward public officials who provide it. Citizenship, in turn, is undergirded by an understanding of, and respect for, American history and government.

Numerous reports reveal declining knowledge about U.S. history in both our students and adults. A recent conversation with a terrific student who is now in medical school made this tangible to me. He is a serious and diligent young man with wide-ranging interests. In fact, the first time I met him he was reading Homer's The Odyssey, for fun, or at least personal enrichment.

During our conversation, I made a reference to the Marshall Plan, the historic American program to rebuild Europe after World War II and arguably one of our nation's greatest accomplishments. The student looked puzzled and said he had never heard of the Marshall Plan.

This surprised and saddened me. How is it possible that a highly motivated and deeply curious college student is not aware of the Marshall Plan?

I don't blame the young man. I blame our education system. To me, this suggests that our schools are not doing an adequate job in civics education. This results in adults who do not understand our nation's history or the structure of our government and are less likely to be engaged citizens.

Annual surveys by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania show the American public is not well informed on the basics of our history and government. This year's report revealed that less than half of Americans surveyed could name all three branches of the federal government and less than a quarter knew that freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to assembly and the right to petition are rights listed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"When it comes to civics, knowledge is power," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the center, when announcing this year's findings. "We are unlikely to cherish, protect and exercise rights if we don't know that we have them."

The good news is that there are people and organizations confronting this challenge.

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor established iCivics about a decade ago to teach the fundamental principles of civics to middle and high school students with free online interactive games and courses that make learning fun, relevant and effective. This program continues to generate creative approaches to teaching civics.

There is bipartisan legislation pending in the U.S. House (HR 1814) and Senate (S 4348) called "The Civics Secures Democracy Act" which is worthy of careful study.

The bill authorizes $1 billion annually over five years for civics education, primarily to states and school districts. It also provides competitive grants to qualifying institutions of higher education, nonprofits, and researchers for projects to improve civics and history education in elementary and secondary schools.

I hope this bill soon becomes law and that Illinois schools and researchers take advantage of its resources.

The United States faces a crucial point as it pertains to investment in civics education. The federal government now allocates 5 cents for every K-12 student in civics education compared to $50 per K-12 student for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. This imbalance is not healthy for our democracy.

It is imperative that we find compelling and factual ways to explain how our government works and tell the American story to our young people, neither jazzing it up or dumbing it down. The truth is powerful and compelling. Despite many mistakes of omission and commission by America and Americans, the overall story of the United States – and Illinois – is impressive and inspiring.

I hope to persuade my students this spring that few nations have had leaders of the caliber of an Abraham Lincoln or a George Marshall – and that their wisdom and bravery was supported by wise and brave citizens.

We will need this level of statesmanship and citizenship in the years ahead.

John T. Shaw is the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at SIU Carbondale. Shaw's monthly column explores how Illinois can work toward better politics and smarter government.