With woeful regularity, researchers confirm Americans’ dismal knowledge of civics. In a nationwide poll of millennials in January, 77 percent of Americans between 18 and 34 couldn’t name even one of their US senators.
It’s an old story, reinforced for years by scholarly studies, popular news accounts, and even man-on-the-street interviews: Americans don’t know much about the workings of their government or the basics of its constitutional architecture. That lack of knowledge is not just disturbing in itself. It also poses a threat to the viability of democratic self-rule.
Immigrants seeking to become US citizens are required to meet a minimal standard of knowledge about civics and government as a condition of naturalization. From a pool of 100 questions, would-be citizens are tested on 10, and must correctly answer a majority. Some of the questions: How many amendments does the Constitution have? What are two rights in the Declaration of Independence? Who is the commander in chief of the military?
The questions aren’t especially demanding, and more than 95 percent of immigrants applying for citizenship pass the civics test. Yet one in three native-born Americans would fail the very same challenge.
That contrast has spurred a nationwide effort, the Civics Education Initiative, to ensure that every American high school graduate pass the US citizenship test as a condition of getting a diploma. In January, Arizona became the first state to make passage of the test mandatory; the new law requires high-school students to correctly answer 60 of the 100 questions. North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah have since followed suit, and lawmakers in other states have introduced similar bills.
Of course this initiative isn’t a panacea. It won’t fix everything that ails civics education in America. But making sure that high school students know at least as much about the fundamentals of US government and law as foreign-born citizens do would be a step in the right direction.
In a democratic republic, civics knowledge matters at least as much as math and science. The Civics Education Initiative can only make things better, and every state should be on board.