Thursday, November 20, 2008

Don't Know Much About Civics

From the USA Today:

From high-school dropouts to college graduates to elected officials, Americans are "alarmingly uninformed" about the USA's history, founding principals and economy — knowledge needed to participate wisely in civic life, says a report scheduled to be released Thursday.

This ignorance helps explain our march towards socialism. You know what should be required reading in every high school US history or civics class? Democracy In America, by Alexis de Tocqueville. The lefties should like him because he was French, and the righties should like him because he was, well, right.


Ellen K said...

After getting into a fairly heated discussion on the role of the Electoral college and the functions of government prior to the election, it's become pretty clear that the new, younger voters can be spoonfed anything and swallow it without hesitation. Scary and disillusioning.

DADvocate said...

I read that many years ago. Don't remember much detail but the general lessons remain.

mazenko said...

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

That’s a pretty harsh assessment of today’s youth. Except those words were uttered by Socrates in the Fifth Century B.C.

Sometimes society errs by expecting sixteen year olds to absorb and ascribe great value to information that seems removed from their lives, and that which the adults who criticize them have often had decades more time to evaluate and reinforce. I find teenagers to often have difficulty truly putting events in historical context because they literally haven’t had that much time in their lives to compare data in decades or even centuries.

Ultimately, our system has survived and thrived regardless of what percentage of students can find St. Louis on a map. Generally, those who can’t end up working for those who can.

We have long decried the country's knowledge of civics, yet there is no evidence that knowledge is any worse than it ever was. Jay Greene's blog has written extensively on this.

Darren said...

Read de Tocqueville.

mazenko said...

I've read de Tocqueville, as well as Kissinger, Buchanan, Ambrose, Kennan, McCullough, etc. In fact, I am certified in history as well as English. Additionally, I recommend these books to students all the time. In class, I give a book talk each day about something my students should read. However, I don't see any of these books as a panacea for the ills of civics' knowledge in American society, especially among teenagers. Jon Stewart's "America," as well as his show has a far more significant impact; albeit biased, he is engaging.

At the same time, while I doubt most of my kids will ever read even one of the books on my list, I am also floored by the students who take AP Government, AP U.S. History, and AP European History. Their knowledge is more extensive than most college educated adults I know. When I meet these kids - and my high school of 3700 student often has a half-dozen or more sections of each class for which their pass rate is 90% - I am not worried about the state of democracy in America.

Several years ago I went to see David McCullough speak, and during the Q/A someone asked why his books are such huge bestsellers and his talks draw huge crowds, but high school students seem to have no interest in or knowledge of history. McCullough replied, "history teachers."

I had to physically restrain several history teacher who were with me. The sad thing is that McCullough has much knowledge of history, but little knowledge of teenagers or society. The republic will survive and thrive based on the system crafted by the Founding Fathers and the people who work ceaselessly to maintain it.

Ellen K said...

How is this any different from the watered down curriculum in many core areas? In order to make the numbers work, they make the curriculum less rigorous. So kids "pass" classes such as English without being able to really read, write or comprehend on level. They "pass" math classes without being able to multiply or figure interest. It's not all of the students, but it's far too many. In many schools social studies are core classes in name only. Only at the AP levels do they really get into the cause and effect of history and civics. And what is scary is that these kids accept ANYTHING said by a newscaster or celebrity as truth. They don't analyze, they don't debate, they go after what is viewed as popular. And they absolutely don't like having their views questioned. This makes for a future where people will vote based on perceptions of wisdom rather than real issues. The road to hell....

mazenko said...


While there is much to criticize in American education, there is even more to praise. Our top students are as good as they've ever been, and judging by the exponential expansion of the AP/IB curriculum, we are educating more of them to that elite level than ever before. This point is accented by the number of colleges who are only excepting 4s and 5s on the exam, or not at all, because so many students are doing so well.

We are educating more of our population than at any time in our history. "Nearly 90 percent of adults today complete high school compared with 33 percent in 1947." Additionally, nearly 30% of the American population today has a college degree compared with 5 percent in 1947. That seems like some rather impressive progress. There is little evidence that nationwide curricula are being watered down.

Additionally, it's difficult to argue that more "students" accept anything said by a newscaster than the rest of the population. Adult voters, even those in the 50 - 65 range, are as misinformed, evidenced by the percentage of the American population that still believes Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. When you say "They don't analyze, they don't debate, they go after what is viewed as popular. And they absolutely don't like having their views questioned. This makes for a future where people will vote based on perceptions of wisdom rather than real issues," it sounds like you're talking about the general population, not just students. The students in our AP Language or AP government classes, or award-winning debate program, are as effective at critical thinking as most adults, if not more so.

As Jay Matthews of the Washington Post asserts, 70% of our high schools are in great shape, and he has the credibility and the research to back up that claim.