Hip! Hip! Hooray! Yippee! Yippee!
Something both positive and bipartisan is floating around in Congress, and it deserves robust discussion and serious consideration.
I fell in love with civics in the 9th grade, and it has shaped my life. Civics is the study of how government works and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
In an authoritarian system, civics is not so important, because the government is going to do what it wants no matter what the citizens think since they have few rights or responsibilities.
In a democratic system like ours, however, it is critical that citizens understand what government is supposed to do and what it is actually doing. It is critical as well that we understand our own rights and responsibilities and what it means to be a citizen of the United States, including our obligation to vote.
Civics has long since fallen on hard times, though. As of 2018, only 9 states require a year of civics education and 10 states have no civics requirements at all. Blessedly, North Carolina falls into the former category.
A survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26% of Americans can identify our 3 branches of government. I should not have been, of course, but I was stunned late last year — yes, stunned! — when a newly elected U.S. Senator, Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., identified the 3 branches as, “You know, the House, the Senate, and the executive.” Maybe, he just played too much football.
I have no idea if Sen. Tuberville’s civics ignorance was the tipping point, but two of his colleagues are sponsoring legislation to invest $1 billion annually in civics and history education in K-12 schools throughout our country. Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, say the Educating for Democracy Act would help future generations of Americans gain a deeper understanding of the workings of government and what their obligations are as citizens of the United States. It would provide grants to states, non-profits, educational institutions and strengthen scholarship programs. A companion bill, also bipartisan, has been filed in the U.S. House.
The legislation would clearly fill a huge void in our nation, but it is not without controversy. Some of civics is clear and factual, particularly the structure of government, federal, state and local, and its mechanics, executive, legislative and judicial. Those are just the facts, ma’am.
How we use government becomes more interpretive. Think of the debate now raging over the use of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate. The filibuster exists, but how it is employed is highly controversial.
The same is true of history. As for the history component of the legislation, we all know the American Civil War occurred between 1861-1865, and that its effects haunt us to this day. How we perceive that conflict, its background and aftermath, though, is individual and personal and often at odds with the perception of others. Ditto for the American experience in Vietnam and the January 6th insurrection in Washington. These events occurred, but many of us interpret them differently.
All of that said, members of Congress are addressing a void in our national knowledge that has swallowed up Americans’ sense of our country and our place in it.
What we do not know — and do not attempt to learn — threatens the future of our democracy. Much has been written over the last decade about this threat.
The only way to combat it is to educate Americans about where we came from and how we participate as citizens.