When Students Fail to Learn Civics, They Fail to Learn about America

As fans of late-night host Jay Leno's man-on-the-street interviews know, Americans suffer from a national epidemic of civic ignorance. But just because more Americans can identify the three judges on "American Idol" than the three branches of government doesn't mean it's all their fault. It's an indictment of the way civics is taught in our high schools, according to a new survey, "High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do."

When researchers Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett asked over 1,000 randomly selected high school social studies teachers about the state of civic education today, they found that not only are these teachers skimping on facts, they're giving short shrift to fundamental concepts about American history and government.

That teachers disdain facts will surprise no seasoned observer of our teacher-training schools.

Only 20 percent chose teaching key facts, dates, and major events as the top priority in their classroom. A mere 38 percent selected "the key principles of American government." Instead, the surveyed teachers gave top billing to other important, but decidedly non-academic goals, such as instilling habits of community service and promoting values like tolerance.

That teachers disdain facts will surprise no seasoned observer of our teacher-training schools. For over half a century, education theorists have decried any attempt to impart knowledge to students as a joyless and misguided exercise in rote learning.

Instead, these thinkers tout so-called "conceptual learning" and "thinking skills." Besides, it's easy today for kids to find the information they need on the Internet, so why teach it in schools?

Of course, students who can't identify the proper half-century during which the Civil War took place or the author of the Declaration of Independence--as two studies of high-schoolers recently found--are unlikely to have a deep understanding of their nation's heritage or its system of government. And teachers who sniff at including such "dead" facts in their lesson plans are equally unlikely to convey much in the way of basic concepts or principles to their pupils.

Indeed, concepts fare not much better than dates and names among the surveyed teachers. Fewer than two thirds said it is "absolutely essential" for students to understand the principles of American government, such as federalism and the separation of powers, or to be knowledgeable about key periods of American history, like the Founding and the Civil War.

Moreover, 40 percent were doubtful that most students at their schools had carefully studied the nation's keystone documents--the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Remember these are the self-stated priorities of America's teachers of U.S. government, civics, and American history. Imagine the uproar if only 60 percent of math teachers agreed that long division or fractions were a vital part of their curricula.

What's worse is that teachers realize their preferred pedagogical methods aren't working. When asked whether they are "very confident" that students have mastered important content and skills, only 24 percent of teachers indicate that their students can identify the protections in the Bill of Rights when they graduate high school, 15 percent think that their students understand federalism and the separation of powers, and 11 percent believe their pupils know the basic precepts of the free market.

The sad truth is our schools are producing a generation of citizens ill-equipped to govern themselves as participants in our democracy.

Cheryl Miller is the program manager of the AEI Program on American Citizenship.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Lise Gagne

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