The Political Page - Opinion

In Our View: Civics education strengthens democracy

The Columbian - March 18, 2021

Last year, according to the Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey, 51 percent of Americans could name all three branches of the federal government.

While the thought that so few citizens could identify a basic foundation of the U.S. Constitution is troublesome, it is not the most disturbing fact. No, that is reserved for the thought that 51 percent marked the highest percentage since the public policy center at the University of Pennsylvania started conducting the survey in 2006.

Combined with a dearth of knowledge about the rights spelled out in the First Amendment, as well as the checks and balances defined by the Constitution, the conclusion is that many Americans would be unable to pass a basic citizenship test.

In other words, our democracy is ailing, crumbling under a combination of apathy and misinformation. Therefore, a new initiative from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities is timely.

Called Educating for American Democracy, it proposes a roadmap for teaching social studies, history and civics. The goal is to invest in teacher training and curriculum that will inspire students to be constructively involved in their communities.

“We should desire to compete on the world’s stage as the kind of society we are, namely, a constitutional democracy,” members of the initiative wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post. “We can do so only if we have civic strength at home. And that requires civic education to support the knowledge, skills and civic virtues needed for a healthy republic.”

In Washington, steps already have been taken to bolster the health of that republic. In 2018, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill – led by Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver – to boost civics education in public schools, including training for teachers.

Meanwhile, other programs are being used to help citizens understand our system of government. The state’s public-affairs network promotes a “Teach with TVW” project, providing hands-on education; the Council of Public Legal Education has launched a Civic Learning Initiative to provide access to civics instruction; and the office of Secretary of State Kim Wyman promotes a “Legacy Washington” program to boost knowledge of the state’s history. Plus, we should mention that newspapers provide daily insight into how our government works.

Such insight is essential. For government to function properly, citizens must understand the machinations. Otherwise, democracy can be undermined by foreign influence, a lack of civic engagement, or a president who willfully ignores the Constitution.

The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was fueled, in part, by a lack of understanding of the Constitution.  Many of the insurrectionists mistakenly believed the process of counting Electoral College votes could be halted by the vice president, grievously buying into a false notion of patriotism. The attack highlighted a disconnect between basic constitutional principles and a self-constructed definition of democracy.

Educating for American Democracy is not a national curriculum. Instead, it seeks to inspire students, tell a full narrative of America’s story and “cultivate civic honesty and patriotism that leaves space both to love and to critique this country.”

Patriotism requires more than a waving of the flag or a declaration of love of country.  It requires a full understanding of the nation’s foundation – such as knowing the three branches of government are the executive, legislative and judicial.