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Civics Education Offers a Map to Escape Our Partisan Maze (Washington Examiner) October 5, 2021

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Congress is struggling to raise the debt ceiling to pay for money that has already been spent. Despite a lack of evidence to support claims of election rigging, there are still heated arguments over the last presidential election. Red wars against blue, Republicans against Democrats, Democratic progressives against party moderates, and Republican Trumpists against traditional conservatives.

For years, we have bemoaned the loss of a center politically. Everyone seems to be left or right, with no one left in what used to be called “the vital center.” But I am concerned about the loss of an even deeper center: the loss of knowledge, respect, and commitment to our democratic system itself.

The Pew Research Center, which has been studying trust issues since 1958, has found that only about a quarter of Americans trust their government. Among younger people, it is even worse. A 2019 Pew poll reported that among those ages 18-29, low trust characterized 48%, more than double that of citizens over 65.

I submit that a large part of our democracy’s partisanship and dysfunction is that we have put the wrong thing at the center. Our government and politics are now driven almost entirely by the two major political parties and their leadership. Unfortunately, their top priority — sometimes it seems like their only priority — is not to find the best policy to serve the public but simply to win. The tools of winning — harsh rhetoric, blocking votes, filibusters, and fundraising — have driven out tools of governing such as deliberation, compromise, and bipartisanship.

But strengthening civics education would be a road toward improving the performance of our democracy. Civic knowledge, respect, and action should replace partisan political parties at the center of the system.

Perhaps you are not aware of the precipitous decline of civic education. National testing shows that only 24% of 8th graders are “proficient” or better in civics, and a meager 15% in U.S. history. Two-thirds of American citizens cannot pass the civics portion of the U.S. citizenship process, something immigrants pass at greater than a 90% rate. Young people especially cannot name the three branches of government, or rights contained in the First Amendment, or whether Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court. Students are not being taught basic civics.

The root cause of this deficiency is that we no longer emphasize civics. Instead of teaching several courses in civics, as was the case a few decades ago, most states only require a single one-semester course in high school. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education has pushed civics to the edge of the curriculum. In fact, the federal government now spends $54 per student per year on STEM education and only 5 cents on civics.

Sure, it’s important to prepare children for jobs, but what about the job of running our republic? Indeed, how can we expect children to trust something they don’t even know or understand?

Returning civics to the core of K-12 education could be a big step toward gluing our republic back together. People can debate and disagree within a system they know and know to care for.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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