“The more I read and the more I listen, the more apparent it is that our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance.” ~Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor
On September 5, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor gave a speech at Boise State. During that talk, she lamented the fact that the American public is largely ignorant of basic American civics facts. To name a few:
- Two-thirds of Americans cannot name a single Supreme Court Justice;
- About one-third can name the three branches of government;
- Less than one-third of eighth graders can identify the historical purpose of the declaration of independence (“and it’s right there in the name,” she added).
Those are highly depressing statistics. Here are eight basic questions I think everyone should know (and no Googling!):
Who is the governor of your state?
Who are your senators?
Who is your Congressional representative?
Name 4 of the 9 current Supreme Court Justices (I believe one should know all nine, but I’ll cut the reader some slack).
Who is the Senate Majority Leader? Minority Leader?
Who is the Speaker of the House?
Who is the current Secretary of State?
How old do you have to be to vote?
In 2011, Newsweek gave 1,000 Americans the U.S. Citizenship Test–38 percent failed. Immigrants taking their naturalization tests to become citizens know more about American civics than many natural-born Americans. Democracy requires informed citizen participants. Too many people prefer to sit back and let others make the rules that affect their lives and then complain about it when policies negatively impact them, their families, or their communities.
So what to do? Making civics a major part of K-12 education, again, is one solution. Ms. O’Connor founded iCivics in 2009 “to reverse America’s declining civic knowledge and participation. Securing our democracy, she realized, requires teaching the next generation to understand and respect our system of governance.” This web platform teaches children basic American civics through educational videos and games plus there are lesson plans for teachers. These teaching materials have been used in schools throughout all fifty states. It would behoove adults to take a look at the site too. We live our democratic principles by knowing how our government works, who is leading us and what responsibilities for governing their roles include, and what actions we can take to influence policymakers.
Democracy only works when people voice to their elected officials how they feel about the issues, when they actively participate, whether it is voting, writing a letter or email, working on a campaign, or advocating for some project in their community. Some citizens do this already, yes, but they may not have your best interests at heart. It takes all of us expressing opinions, sharing facts, debating and engaging in the policies of this great country.
Too many people feel they have no influence so have given up. Life is hard enough without having to make time to consume enough news—and a variety of it—to be informed or to get involved in politics, even at the local level. However, if you don’t believe you can make a difference just look at the 2012 Presidential election. In states where citizens felt they were being prevented from voting—that their right to vote was being suppressed—they said, “No you won’t.” Activists spread the word about voter suppression tactics and on election day, some voters stood in line for up to eight hours to cast their ballot. Regular people can make a difference. Yes, big money and corporate interests are too entrenched in our government, but ordinary Americans can change that if they care enough.
Caring starts with knowledge. Once the knowledge is there, then the desire to engage is sparked, and that spark can make a huge difference in the future trajectory of this country; a country where everyone is encouraged to participate and most do. We will never eliminate money in politics completely, but we can lessen its influence and that is what democracy is about – all of us having a say, not only those who possess the most capital.
Take a look at iCivics, show it to your kids, ask their teachers to utilize it. How well would you do on the citizenship test? Once citizens know how our democracy functions and how it was established, protecting it becomes that much more important. Knowledge is power. Don’t let a few make all the rules for the many. Learn and engage. American democracy depends on it; American democracy depends on you.
Cross-posted at The Feisty Liberal
- The state of civic education: Teaching the citizens of tomorrow (greatschools.org)
- America’s Civic Learning crisis: Preparation for informed and engaged citizenship is the co-equal goal of education: A Fact Sheet (civicmissionofschools.org)
- Flunking Civics: Why America’s Kids Know so Little (abajournal.com)