Renée Loth

A needed lesson in citizenship

By Renée Loth
May 14, 2011

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WITH ALL the problems facing schools today, it might be hard to get up much enthusiasm — or outrage — over last week’s dreadful results in the “national report card’’ on civics. After all, we are told repeatedly, American students are falling behind China, Korea, and many other countries (Estonia?!) in critical math and science skills that will drive the global economy throughout the century. Given that kind of pressure, isn’t civics education kind of a frill?

Here’s why not: Unlike China or some other competitors, the United States is founded on the radical idea of self-government. How can that principle function when only 4 percent of 12th-graders — young people who soon will be, or already are, eligible to vote — scored at the “advanced’’ level in civics on last year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress? Less than 66 percent scored even at the “basic’’ level or above.

The trouble, according to Charles Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education, is that the country is “focused more and more upon developing the worker at the expense of developing the citizen.’’ The result, he said, is a group of “vulnerable, less-empowered’’ Americans at the mercy of political spin.

The test questions aren’t particularly esoteric, but they do require a certain level of critical thinking: Name one positive and one negative effect of television on US politics; identify an activity that is part of civic life; define the term “melting pot’’ and argue whether it applies to the United States; explain the Bill of Rights; interpret a political cartoon.

“We pride ourselves as a country dependent on popular sovereignty, but we don’t prepare our students to take on that role,’’ said Roger Desrosiers, who taught social studies for 32 years at Millbury High and who has been an adviser to the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Surprisingly perhaps, Massachusetts is one of nine states that don’t require civics or government courses in high school. It’s up to individual school districts whether to offer them — and as electives. So the students most likely to take civics courses are those who are already interested. That only worsens the economic and racial divides that also afflict civics education.

Informed citizenship should not become a luxury reserved only for those with elite educations. But with so much emphasis on teaching marketable skills, subjects like civics get shortchanged in most public schools. The danger is a bifurcated society with a “labor class’’ and a “leader class’’ that is inimical to the very idea of democracy.

The decline in civics education is occurring against a backdrop of massive changes in the way people, especially young people, receive their news. Today’s media landscape is a kind of wilderness where truth is relative, editing is cursory, boundaries are blurred, and a polarized audience is confirmed in its biases by lopsided or cherry-picked information. That makes civics education an even more crucial antidote.

The most obvious effect of poor civics education is a drop in voter participation. “The main reason young people say they don’t vote is that they don’t know enough,’’ said Quigley. “They haven’t been prepared to analyze a platform or a position.’’

Sure enough, voting among 18-to-29 year-olds has been declining since 1972, the first presidential election after 18-year-olds got the vote. Even in 2008, when the youth turnout spiked to 51 percent, it lagged the overall turnout of 64 percent.

A recent “News IQ’’ telephone survey by the Pew Research Center found that 18-to-29 year-olds scored worst of all age categories on a series of 11 current events questions. Only 21 percent could name John Boehner as speaker of the US House. Less than half could identify the most expensive government program (Medicare) or peg the unemployment rate (9 percent) within 5 points. And the questions were multiple choice.

Cynics would say that the country is better off without the whims and gropings of the ill-informed masses. But that smacks of the bad old days, when only propertied classes could vote. Far from an extravagance, civics education is no less than a free people’s protection against tyranny. Because if you don’t understand your rights, it’s a lot easier to have them taken away.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.