Failing the Civics Test, Coast to Coast

(Photo: Justin Skinner/Dreamstime)
Today, most Americans can’t answer even basic questions about their government. Some states are taking steps to change that.

Last week, lawmakers in Oregon proposed a bill that would require all public-school students in the state to pass the civics portion of the U.S. naturalization test before receiving their high-school diploma. Under Senate Bill 1038, Oregon students would have to correctly answer 60 of the 100 civics questions to pass. A student could take the test as many times as necessary to reach that threshold and could begin taking the test even before high school. Just last month, Alabama, Arkansas, and Kentucky each enacted similar laws, joining at least 15 other states with such civics requirements for high-school graduation, according to the Joe Foss Institute’s Civics Education Initiative.

Though perhaps unintentional, the bill’s submission last week coincided with the 274th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth. A champion of the diffusion of knowledge, Jefferson is often — and incorrectly — credited as once saying, “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic.” But, despite its spurious attribution, this popular axiom does reflect the significance Jefferson placed on education, particularly public education, and its role in civil society. Writing to fellow Virginian and lifelong friend James Madison in 1787, Jefferson stated: “Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”

For Jefferson, education was vital for both individual and societal welfare. He called it “the resource most to be relied on for ameliorating the conditions, promoting the virtue and advancing the happiness of man.” As for the national interest, Jefferson summed it up bluntly in an 1816 letter to Charles Yancey: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Looking upon the present state of common education today, then, would no doubt make Jefferson question the safety of our liberty. When it comes to knowledge of history and civics — subjects Jefferson valued higher than any others for the preservation of good government — the picture is particularly bleak.

In his 1818 plan for the University of Virginia, Jefferson listed among the benefits of proper education “the incalculable advantage of training up able counselors to administer the affairs of our country in all its departments, legislative, executive and judiciary.” Today, only a quarter of Americans can even name the three branches of government; nearly a third can’t name even a single one. Jefferson wrote in 1821 of his conviction that adequate education is required for “the preservation of our republican government” and “essential to its protection against foreign power.” An October 2016 report produced by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation found that approximately a fourth of Americans and a third of Millennials think more people were killed under President George W. Bush than under Joseph Stalin. As for Jefferson himself, a January 2016 study from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni revealed that roughly 60 percent of recent college graduates surveyed thought that he, rather than James Madison, was “the Father of the Constitution” — even though Jefferson, serving as U.S. minister to France, was not even in the country during the Constitutional Convention, in 1787, much less present in the Pennsylvania State House.

Only a quarter of Americans can even name the three branches of government; nearly a third can’t name even a single one.

Consider the context of Oregon’s proposed civics requirement. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which administers the federal naturalization test, reports a 91 percent national pass rate for foreign-born applicants. This, it should be noted, is determined based on an applicant’s first attempt and includes both an English and civics component. Although, understandably, there is far less data measuring native-born citizens’ performance on the test, the results that are available are nothing short of shameful. A 2012 survey by Xavier University found that “one in three native-born citizens failed the civics portion of the naturalization test,” compared with the 97.5 percent pass rate on the civics portion among foreign-born applicants reported by USCIS in 2010. Furthermore, the survey noted that if the minimum score required to pass the exam were 70 percent rather than 60 percent, then half of native-born Americans would have failed.

To be sure, our nation is experiencing a crisis in civic literacy. Legislative efforts aimed at addressing this educational deficiency are both necessary and proper. In correspondence with Madison, Jefferson extolled the virtues of “giving information to the people,” writing:

[This] is the most certain and the most legitimate engine of government. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.

While requiring American public-school students to demonstrate knowledge of 60 basic facts about their country’s history and government — nearly half of which could be gleaned from a few trips through the Hamilton soundtrack — is undoubtedly a humble baseline, it’s a much-needed step in the right direction. And, as Thomas Jefferson himself believed, an excess of education is not necessarily required to convince the people to cherish their liberty.

— Grant Addison is a research assistant in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


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