Nat Hentoff, long one of my favorite writers despite his surprising and indefensible position on the Terri Schaivo situation, has a column in the Village Voice about the importance of civics classes in public schools. He points to the abysmal ignorance that study after study has shown about some of the very basic facts about our system of law. I’ll post a long excerpt from that column below the fold:
In a national study last year, Future of the First Amendment, funded by the Knight Foundation, more than 100,000 high school students were interviewed on what they know of the First Amendment. Seventy-three percent either had no opinion or took the First Amendment for granted, whatever that may mean. More than a third believed that the First Amendment goes too far in its guarantees.
Thirty-six percent of these high school students say that newspapers must obtain government approval before publishing!
And this year, the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum poll of 1,000 adults revealed that only one of them could name the five freedoms in the First Amendment. Can you name all five freedoms?…
Especially alarming–in view of George W. Bush’s warrantless surveillance, his approval of CIA “renditions” and torture, and his conviction that Congress and the courts get in his way as commander in chief–is an American Bar Association poll last summer in which barely half of the respondents could name the three branches of our federal government. And less than half knew the meaning of the “separation of powers.”
And he quotes Eva Muskowitz, an educator and director of the Harlem Success Academy charter school in New York, with this very prescient question:
“Why,” she continued, “did we have a civics curriculum in 1950 and no longer have one now? Is someone making a clear, concerted policy decision, or is it just falling through the cracks?”
Ignorance, I would argue, is the very lifeblood of politics. It is ignorance that allows our leaders to say things that are palpably untrue and know that only a small percentage of their constituents has the knowledge to identify it as untrue. It is ignorance that allows our leaders to claim that the Constitution grants unlimited authority to the President in times of war, and they feel secure in knowing that only a tiny portion of the population knows enough about the Constitution to know it’s not true. Is it possible that the lack of civics classes is a deliberate political decision for the purpose of keeping the masses ignorant? I think it could be.
We require that those who want to become American citizens pass a test before doing so, yet we allow those who were born citizens to remain blissfully unaware of their own history and system of government. And the test we require new citizens to take is astonishingly easy. Here’s a sample version of the test. Anyone with what I would regard as the bare minimum education should be able to ace it easily; sadly, I doubt that your average high school graduate could even get 70% on the test.
Nat Hentoff, in addition to his brilliant writing on the subject of jazz, spends a great deal of his time talking to elementary and secondary students about the Bill of Rights. He tells the stories behind how the Bill of Rights came to be and why those particular things were important to the founding generation. We need a lot more of that. A citizenry that doesn’t know the source and nature of its own freedoms is a citizenry that will roll over and play dead when a would-be tyrant tries to seize more power for himself.