June 5, 2012
by Bruce Cole
Amid this election season, the Educational Testing Service and the Council on Foreign Relations are worried about Americans' knowledge of civics.
A recent report by the ETS, "Fault Lines in Our Democracy" follows on the heels of a recent study by the Council on Foreign Relations. Both reports deplore the lack of civic knowledge and both suggest remedies. The CFR links education with national security and calls for broad school reforms; the ETS concentrates on what is called "civic engagement." Unfortunately, for all the information this new report contains on who engages and who does not, it fails to make the most constructive suggestion -- to make sure teachers and students are taught fundamentals of U.S. history and government.
ETS demonstrates a relationship between civic engagement and age, income, and educational levels. In other words, if you're 55 or older, have an advanced degree, and earn more than $100,000 per year, it's more likely you will cast a ballot and participate in some kind of civic service than if you're younger, have fewer dollars, and less education.
ETS, an outfit that's close to the higher education establishment (it administers the SAT, a test not without its critics), will certainly applaud this statistical correlation. But it is just that -- a correlation. It would be facile to conclude that it equals causation.
Often it is issues, not education levels or wealth, that motivate voters. If you don't believe this, just look at the 2008 and 2010 elections. Also, there is no proof offered by the ETS that older, wealthier voters have more civic knowledge than any other section of the electorate.
Moreover, the acts of voting and service are not the only tests of citizenship. What about philanthropy, jury duty, or service in the military?
The ETS report proposes a number of ways to increase voting and other civic engagement. Remedies include easier access to voting, strengthening confidence in government (tell that to the General Services Administration), more exposure to civic knowledge and working to close education achievement gaps. There's even a suggestion that 18-year-olds be required to register to vote, although fortunately no suggestion that we follow Australia in making voting compulsory.
But civic activity is not the same as knowledge of civics, and the ETS bromides don't address the problem of why students -- the future voters -- aren't learning civics. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Department of Education's national report card, notes that fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-grade students lack even an elementary grasp of how our government works. Only a quarter of all students qualified as proficient in knowledge about civics.
This alarming knowledge deficit occurs because many civics classes are content-light, politically correct and easily fall prey to educational fads. They're heavy on sociology, community service, service learning, political activity and civic engagement, but all too often light on facts and concepts. Unless you first equip students with a good grasp of American government and its history, asking them to "engage" in civic activity is like assigning them a report without a subject.
It would also help if teachers knew more about the subject. The ATS study shows that history or history education was the major of only half of eighth-grade civics teachers. A quarter majored in general social science or social science education. What teachers need and often don't get from their Ed School educations is content knowledge.
So instead of the ETS' airy call for a National Commission on Civic Engagement -- we've already got one, it's called the National Conference on Citizenship -- or the promotion of bumper-sticker slogans like "community service and leadership development," how about going back to fundamentals?
Teach students how our government works and why. That will improve civic education. If this happens, maybe more than 7 percent of eighth graders will be able to name the three branches of government.
Bruce Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow in 2012.
Home | Learn About Hudson | Hudson Scholars | Find an Expert | Support Hudson | Contact Information | Site Map
Policy Centers | Research Areas | Publications & Op-Eds | Hudson Bookstore
Hudson Institute, Inc. 1015 15th Street, N.W. 6th Floor Washington, DC 20005
Phone: 202.974.2400 Fax: 202.974.2410 Email the Webmaster
© Copyright 2013 Hudson Institute, Inc.