Opinion: Restoring civics education, testing should be priority

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I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.    — Thomas Jefferson, 1820

Given the dismal state of today’s civics education and knowledge, Jefferson would certainly be a proponent of informing the discretion of those lacking in such knowledge – namely our youth.  Those would be the folks we’re counting on to preserve and protect our “of the people, by the people, for the people” nation.

And for some very good reasons, it appears that those young citizens soon might be getting a little help in learning the fundamentals of citizenship.  Two weeks ago, Arizona became the first state in the nation to enact a law mandating that in order to receive a high school or GED diploma, high school students score a minimum 60 percent on the US Citizenship and Immigration Services list of 100-questions on the Civics (history and government) Naturalization test.

According to a January 15, 2015 Associated Press article, Arizona isn’t the only state looking to strengthen, or in some cases re-instate, civics education in the high school curriculum.  The idea to use the citizenship test is advocated by the Joe Foss Institute in Arizona.  Per the AP article, the Joe Foss Institute “created a civics institute to promote the test to state legislatures as a way to increase the understanding of basic government by students, with the hope that they will be engaged as citizens.”

Louisiana is one of over a dozen states said to be considering emulating Arizona’s actions.  Anyone interested the preservation of our American form of government will want to support this effort.

Here are a couple of reasons for the concern about lack of civics education …

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, speaking at a women’s leadership conference sponsored by the Andrus Center for Public Policy in September 2013, made these observations about the abysmal lack of civic knowledge in our country:

“Two-thirds of Americans cannot name a single Supreme Court justice … About one-third can name the three branches of government.  Fewer than one-fifth of high school seniors can explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.  Less than one-third of eighth graders can identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and it’s right there in the name,” she said.

More recently, David Adler, Director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy, provided more worrisome statistics in a July 2014 piece in the Coeur d’Alene Press:

“In the last few years, surveys and assessments have disclosed a stunning lack of knowledge about our governmental system.  Sixty-four percent of Americans can’t name the three branches of government.  Most cannot name their own members of the US House of Representatives or the US Senate.  Nearly half don’t know that states have two Senators.  Fifty-four percent can’t name a single US Supreme Court Justice.”

Adler continued, “Only a bare majority can name the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.  More citizens can name ‘American Idol’ judges than can name the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.  Sixty-one percent can name at least one ‘American Idol’ judge, but only 15 percent know that John Roberts is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.”

Without a doubt, the longevity of America governed by her people requires better than average civics-educated citizenry.  And we are falling perilously far behind in ensuring that such education is delivered through our public education systems.

Civic literacy is an absolute if we care to ensure the preservation of this American republic.

North Dakota’s House of Representatives followed the Arizona action a day later.  When this proposition to restore civics education and testing in Louisiana becomes a matter of discussion, is should have the full and unequivocal support of Louisiana citizens.

(Note:  Sandra Day O’Conner’s concern for the dangerous lack of civics in schools prompted her to found icivics.org, a website that offers a variety of learning tools and activities to make learning about government and citizenship more interesting.)

Marty Carlson is a columnist for the BPT. She may be reached at martycarlson1218@gmail.com