Who was president of the United States during World War I?
If you answered “Woodrow Wilson,” congratulations — you’re in the minority. A whopping 79 percent of native-born American adults apparently don’t know the answer to that question.
Even more disturbingly, a September 2014 poll found that “while little more than a third of respondents (36 percent) could name all three branches of the U.S. government, just as many (35 percent) could not name a single one.” According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 91 percent of foreign-born applicants pass the naturalization test, which includes these questions. But when high-school students in Oklahoma and Arizona were given the same test, fewer than 4 percent got the necessary six out of ten answers right.
How can Americans possibly make intelligent and informed political choices if they don’t understand the fundamental structure of their government? American citizens have the right to self-government, but it seems that we increasingly lack the capacity for it.
A new Civics Education Initiative is trying to change that. With a national board of advisers that includes former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and, until recently, included former U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the Civics Education Initiative is, notably, not pushing for a top-down federal program like Common Core to address this problem. Nor is it advocating a new curriculum or battery of standardized tests that would require a huge amount of taxpayer money to develop and administer.
Instead, it has a very simple proposal: Individual states should pass legislation requiring students to pass the U.S. citizenship test in order to graduate from high school.
Already, the state of Arizona has passed the nation’s first such law. Eighteen other states, including North Dakota, Indiana, Idaho, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Alabama, and Virginia, will probably consider similar legislation within the next year. Troy Singleton, an assemblyman from my own state of New Jersey, has introduced a similar bill. He writes, “Our government works best when we have a citizenry that understands its responsibility in our democracy.” On this point, Singleton is in good company. James Madison, the father of our Constitution, warned that “knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
The concept of requiring high-school students to pass the citizenship test enjoys broad public support. In fact, a recent nationwide survey showed that 74 percent of likely voters either “support” or “strongly support” the idea.
But there are some nay-sayers. The most common objection is that these laws will force civics teachers to “teach to the test,” giving rote memorization priority over real engagement with the material. “If all we’re asking students to do is answer very simple questions,” University of Wisconsin professor Diana Hess is quoted as saying in a recent New York Times article, “we’re not going to be working on the complex understanding that I think students need in order to participate well.”
Such fears do, of course, have a basis in reality. Yoking high-stakes testing to federal education money, as No Child Left Behind did, puts a huge amount of pressure on teachers. It’s not clear that such strategies actually increase educational quality, and the National Education Association argues that they limit teachers’ creative abilities in the classroom.
But the citizenship test is a simple one, covering material that should already be included in civics courses. It’s not tied to school funding, and the model legislation allows for the test to be administered and graded independently by classroom teachers. Students who don’t pass the test the first time can retake it until they achieve a score of 60 percent or higher. Teachers are given a great deal of freedom in the way they choose to integrate these core concepts into their curriculum.
It’s true that the citizenship test requires memorization of facts, not real-world engagement with the way that government functions at the local, state, and national levels. But these two things aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, memorizing facts about the underlying structure of our government makes it easier to put current events into context and evaluate particular proposals, determining whether or not they fit well into the framework of our Constitution.
Helping students learn how to get involved in the processes of government is essential, and I’m not arguing that this should be replaced by teaching to the test. It’s important to know the locations of your local courthouse and polling places, and to know who your assemblymen and senators are and how to contact them. But it’s just as important to know that, on the national scale, the legislative branch of our government is checked and balanced by the executive and the judicial.
Let’s not settle for either/or thinking. Instead, let’s support educational initiatives that encourage both factual knowledge and real civic engagement.
— Serena Sigillito is managing editor of Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute. She holds a B.A. from the University of Dallas and an M.A. in English from the Catholic University of America. Follow her on Twitter @SerenaSigillito.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly listed Sandra Day O’Connor as a current member of the Civics Education Initiative’s board of advisers. She resigned from that position in October 2014 and has discontinued her involvement with the organization.