Hentoff on Civics Courses

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.


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I disagree. How many people were supporting President Clinton's 'right' to hold people without trial? Even after Oklahoma City, Clinton didn't assert his right to pick up some militia leaders, and torture them for information. And he had at least the justification that Bush did - those people joining militia's weren't doing it for innocent reasons.

Think about how many right-wing militia types we all heard, spouting off about the Clinton administration, frequently quoting the Constitution? I heard a lot. After January 21, 2001, these voices changed to a chorus of praise for Our Dear Leader. How many hardcore right-wing religious leaders rebuked their flocks, quoting those Bible verses about respecting those whom God has put above them? If somebody stood up in their congregation today, read off a list of verifiable Bush lies and crimes, and stated that Bush was a bad president (not advocating overthrow of the government), would those religious leaders utter anything other than threats of damnation?

The press had no problem criticizing Clinton, and any of his actions - plausibility wasn't required, let alone actual truth. They regurgitated known lies from known liars with known partisan affiliations.

GOP Congressional leaders had no qualms about fighting for powers and privilegs with President Clinton, using any and all weapons at their disposal.

The real problem is that probably 40% of the American people *want* a GOP one-party state, and much of the media ownership finds it convenient to support that, due to certain shared interests (fat profits).

"Ignorance, I would argue, is the very lifeblood of politics."

It may be the lifeblood of politics, but that's only in the short term. Its poison to any kind of representative government, all forms of which have a built-in assumption that people can and will be able to vote in their own best interests.

Ignorance in the voting population is great for short-term power gains by certain parties, but long-term it will cause instability and discontent with the system as a whole. You don't even have to look at the old canard of ancient Rome to see where things could lead to - a number of modern democracies have fallen to despotism in the last century due to problems like this.


I think the quoting of the Constitution in the service of bashing the Clinton administration was, by and large, simply regurgitated from the usual right-wing mouthpieces. I don't think it's evidence (unfortunately) of a populace well-versed in, or even much interested in, our system of government.

By Mark Williams (not verified) on 25 Apr 2006 #permalink

Mark, the point is that these people were aware of things like limited powers, separation of powers, and the Bill of Rights. Which is a long way from abysmal ignorance, even if they were wrong about a lot of the details.

I read Barry's initial comment about 5 times and still don't quite get the point. But I'll say this: neither the press nor the public cared a whit for Clinton's attempts to violate civil liberties, and they were many. Clinton was the worst civil liberties president since Nixon, until our current administration decided to try and break all the records. Clinton was pushing Congress to pass about 90% of the provisions later found in the Patriot Act in 1993 and 1994, with hardly a peep from the media (those on the right, of course screamed bloody murder about this naked grab for power by Clinton, but that was purely politics - they turned right around and gleefully handed even more power to Bush once he was in office). Clinton wanted the power to use roving wiretaps long before the Patriot Act was brought up and hardly anyone said a word.

Barry, I'm basically in agreement with you. I just think the evidence points to there being a very small number of citizens who understand our system of government, and their messages simply get regurgitated by everyone else in service of defending whichever positions they've already decided on. I think most of your 40% GOP one-party-staters are not knowingly hypocritical when they denounce Clinton's power grabbing and then turn around and laud Bush's abuses in the same area. They simply parrot the party line, then and now, without understanding the contradictions between their anti-Clinton and pro-Bush arguments. Any cognative dissonance that might interfere with this is prevented by the fact that Clinton presidency is more than 10 days in the past, well beyond the memory horizon of most Americans. Just because you hear people using terms like "separation of powers" and "Bill of Rights" doesn't mean they know what they're talking about. Naturally this kind of ignorance can be found everywhere on the political spectrum, not just the right.

By Mark Williams (not verified) on 25 Apr 2006 #permalink