Cepeda column: Our nation’s civic health depends on you
CHICAGO — You can’t throw a rock these days without hitting a book, news headline or podcast episode about the impending end of democracy.
I’m no doomsayer, but, yes, it’s coming.
Not just because of increasing political polarization, the influence of corporate money on elections or any of the other usual suspects. It’ll be just plain apathy and ignorance that finally do us in.
Let’s start with these little nuggets of information. Of the 1,000 randomly selected American adults who recently took a multiple-choice quiz:
• Only 13 percent knew when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, with most incorrectly thinking it occurred in 1776.
• 60 percent didn’t know which countries the United States fought in World War II.
• 57 percent did not know how many justices serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
• Only 24 percent could correctly identify one thing Benjamin Franklin was famous for, with 37 percent believing he invented the lightbulb.
• 12 percent incorrectly thought Gen. Dwight Eisenhower led troops in the Civil War; 6 percent thought he was a commander in the Vietnam War. (He served in World War II.)
I could go on with more startling results from the quiz conducted by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (WWNFF), but, frankly, it’s too depressing.
This level of cluelessness doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. It’s been coming on for some time as civics education has gotten crowded out of public school curricula by an increased push to get more kids proficient in reading, math and writing.
We’ll have to wait until next year to learn how our nation’s students fared on the National Assessment of Educational Progress civics assessment in 2018 — the test is administered every four years — but the 2014 test was a sad scene.
Scores among eighth-graders showed no improvement from their dismal level in 2010. Less than one-quarter of students scored at the level of “proficient” or better, and only about half said they found their civics coursework interesting “often” or “always.”
No one knows where the blame lies for today’s students being low-performing in civics.
It could be anything from poor teaching to the educational trend of telling students that rote memorization is unnecessary in the age of the internet search engine. Perhaps the educational philosophy of “constructivist” learning — which means that students create their own knowledge based on their own experiences — just isn’t moving the needle.
But none of those exactly explain why, as the WWNFF’s survey noted, people 65 years and older scored the best. Only 19 percent of people under 45 passed the quiz, with 81 percent scoring a 59 percent or lower.
Ironically, there is a little-known subsection of the American population that has passed a similar test — 10 questions on U.S. civics from a pool of 100 questions — and there’s no question that they did so because passing was deeply personally meaningful to them.
I’m speaking, of course, about naturalized U.S. citizens.
They take a speaking, reading, writing and civics test as just a small part of their application for citizenship. Then, at their ceremony, they swear to support our Constitution, renounce allegiance to all other countries, and vow to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law.
So how can we make civics and history personally meaningful to young people in school and to the adults who are navigating the governmental structures that have so much influence over nearly every aspect of their lives?
There may be no alternative. As climate change-related weather events decimate whole regions of our country, trade pacts continue to reshape the American economy and voter behavior keeps being threatened by partisan lawmaking and foreign interference, we will need to hold our elected leaders accountable for ensuring that we aren’t doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Whether you live in a rural area that doesn’t have adequate internet connectivity or in an urban enclave where clean, lead- and chemical-free water isn’t readily available, chances are you’re part of a community that needs to know how its government works now more than ever.
Every impending disaster has the potential to also be an interesting opportunity. You can either feel as though the country you grew up in and love is changing too quickly for you to adapt and thrive, or you can commit yourself to understanding how we got here and how, together, we can change direction for the better.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.