By: Robert Scott
All writers in Op Ed are here to inform and acknowledge issues of importance to our communities, however these writings represent the views and opinions of the authors and not necessarily of The Advertiser.
“Kids these days don’t know anything about Civics. Back in my day, everybody had to pass Civics in order to graduate from High School. We need to do that again!”
Does that sound like you speaking, or at least like your thoughts? I just read a recent article in The Week magazine penned by Samuel Goldman, an Associate Professor of Political Science at DC’s George Washington University. The thrust of the article was this: although it’s true that most Americans don’t understand how our federal system is supposed to work, that is nothing new. Civics may have once been a staple of high school curricula, but one hundred years ago, before World War I, high school graduation rates were less than 10 percent; students participating in those classes were only a small part of the voting population. During WWII a survey showed that 77 percent of Americans could not say anything meaningful about what our Bill of Rights contained, and in the 1950’s another survey showed that just 11 percent of Americans knew what portion of the House of Representatives were to be voted on in the next federal election (hint: all of them). It wasn’t until 1960 that the median American successfully completed high school.
Politicians and others argue that more educated citizens will be better informed and cast more thoughtful ballots. But we need to remember that former President Trump’s success in coming in a close second in both the 2016 and 2020 popular votes was based in part on his appealing to non-college educated voters, and he made it a point to poke fun at those Americans who understood Civics and other courses better, presumably, than he did.
So, what’s the answer? Yes, we need to ensure that there is a Civics program that starts in early grades and is reinforced in high school. Such a program should include increasing discussion, as students progress, of both popular and unpopular ideas. They shouldinclude our history of gradually opening the voting franchise to more and more Americans, and how that has benefited our democracy. We need to give high school students the opportunity to think about how our current federal structure allows small states like South Carolina to wield more political power per capita than large states, and how the candidate with the second-highest popular vote totals was nevertheless elected President not infrequently in our history, from John Quincy Adams up to and including the elections of George W. Bush and Donald Trump. We need to expose our high schoolers to controversial ideas such as Critical Race Theory and the role that White Supremacy has played within our politics, from slavery and the “3/5 Compromise” at the nation’s founding to minority voter intimidation in post-Reconstruction South Carolina. An excellent discussion topic would be whether or not we have now moved beyond all that.
Civics instruction is needed in our living rooms as well as in our schools. Having students bring home ideas that differ from those of their parents, and the family discussions that would certainly result, would be a good thing. Education should not be about indoctrinating students to have political ideas identical to, or for that matter different from, those of their parents. It should be about teaching our future voters how to think through issues on their own, and about enlivening their interest in seeking further answers for themselves.