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Everyone Has An Opinion About Government But Many Citizens Would Flunk Civics

Ignorance Isn't Only A Problem Among The Young. Immigrants Outscore Normal Americans In Knowing About The Constitution

A couple of weeks ago a friend forwarded an op-ed from The New York Times. Written by Timothy Egan, (author of The Worst Hard Time and The Big Burn), it was one of many opinion pieces being circulated about fake news and how we as a country can’t seem to get enough of it.

Part of Egan's essay had to do with how ignorant many of us are about basic civics. He blames our educational system, and it set me wondering if it’s true that we no longer learn about our own country in primary school.

Egan reminds us that one of the reasons we have public schools is to maintain an informed citizenry. “Up until the 1960s,” he writes, “it was common for students to take three separate courses in civics and government before they got out of high school. Now only a handful of states require proficiency in civics as a condition of high school graduation.”

Frankly, I found this hard to believe, so I conducted a bit of local research.

Wyoming’s Department of Education is governed by a statute (W.S. 21-9- 102) which requires all publicly-funded schools in the state to “give instruction in the essentials of the United States constitution and the constitution of the state of Wyoming, including the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals.”

In order to receive a high school diploma, a student must take at least three years of civics-related coursework before grade eight and one year in the secondary grades. The state has developed proficiency standards that help teachers assign grades according to how well students show they’ve learned the material. 

At Jackson Hole High School, students take three courses: U.S. history as freshmen, world history as sophomores and government as seniors.

All of this sounds like plenty of instruction to prepare students to become informed citizens. But whether we have a high school diploma or not, it’s hard to believe that many of us don’t know who our congressional representatives and senators are, or what the Supreme Court does. According to many national polls, that’s the case.

How does this happen? Are students so bored by the material they sleep through class and the instructor passes them anyway? Is some kind of peer pressure at work similar to that often cited for girls doing well at math until the middle grades?

Part of the problem I see is a disconnect between what the schools are supposed to do and the funding they get to do it. Some state legislators are loathe to fund the schools adequately, insisting that they continue to do more with less. 

This kind of approach is exactly the opposite of what resulted in America  (touted by both liberals and conservatives) of being the most educated, enlightened and innovative globally—and it runs counter to this country having public lands and a heritage of stewardship that are the envy of the world. 

Doing more with less has been a mantra of the underfunded—and increasingly demoralized— U.S. Forest Service for decades, and it’s been obvious to me over the years that without well-funded private partners and a good deal of creative financing, doing anything, let alone more, was next to impossible. 
"Doing more with less has been a mantra of the underfunded—and increasingly demoralized— U.S. Forest Service for decades, and it’s been obvious to me over the years that without well-funded private partners and a good deal of creative financing, doing anything, let alone more, was next to impossible." 
The not-so-hidden agenda for both public schools and public land: starve them until they expire.  What will take their places, who knows. I’m not sure I want to find out.

The do-more-with-less attitude isn’t true of every state and federal legislator, of course, but a vocal and influential minority is able to keep school funding to a minimum, even in flush years. They seem to be opposed to everything about government—except themselves.  And there is now a sneering and pervasive attitude toward education, as if it is wrong to be smart and elitist to challenge alternative facts that cannot withstand scrutiny.

Given the state of school funding, overworked teachers spend their own salaries on supplies as their classes grow larger, place buckets under roof leaks, and bring food in for the kids who didn’t get breakfast. Actual learning is supposed to happen in there somewhere, producing the informed citizenry that Tim Egan and the rest of us hope for.

More than one civics expert has suggested that we treat citizenship like getting a driver’s license. You’re tested on American history, the Constitution, and basic geography as part of a rite of passage when you reach the age to vote. 

Immigrants have to pass such a test, and over 97 percent of them do.  According to a 2012 study done at Xavier University, a third of native-born citizens fail.
Where is human evolution taking us?  Image courtesy John Potter, artist (www.johnpotterstudio.com)
Where is human evolution taking us? Image courtesy John Potter, artist (www.johnpotterstudio.com)

Does it matter if there are some ignoramuses among us? There is so much to know, so much to forget and we are all so busy. Michael Ford, the director of Xavier University’s Center for the American Dream, summarized the problem, and it’s one that that affects us all.

“Civic illiteracy makes us more susceptible to manipulation and abuses of power,” Ford stated. He added that he didn’t expect people to know every detail. “Does it matter if we don’t know how many constitutional amendments there are?” he asks. “No. But almost 60 percent don’t even know what an amendment is.”

Okay, smarty, I said. Let’s see how well you do. I took a few of the practice tests offered online by Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS.gov). You get 20 questions but you can take as many practice tests as you want, until you’ve either grown bored or embarrassed. I missed 2 out of 40 questions, mostly by overthinking them. Most of them were pretty darn easy for anyone who pays the least attention to what’s going on in the world.

Further, the test is multiple-choice so if you kind of know the answer you can get it right by process of elimination. I recommend giving it a try. Nobody sees what you get wrong, and it’s kind of fun.

When you answer a question on the test, there is usually a little blurb about it so you can learn more. The U.S. Constitution, for instance, is the longest-standing constitution anywhere in the world. Shouldn’t we be proud of that, and work to keep it a vital document for the present day? Knowing something about it would be a start.

People who know little about our government and why it matters are unlikely to vote, and statistics about our participation rate in elections bears this out. 136.6 million Americans voted in 2016, or 55.5 percent of the total voting-age population.

According to a Pew Research Center study, this places the U.S. “behind most of its peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, most of whose members are highly developed, democratic states. Looking at the most recent nationwide election in each of the 35 OECD member nations, the U.S. placed 28th.”
"If people are as ignorant as the polls suggest and hardly find it worth their while to vote, how can we expect them to care about public land, wilderness or wildlife?"
If people are as ignorant as the polls suggest and hardly find it worth their while to vote, how can we expect them to care about public land, wilderness or wildlife? These are part of who we are as Americans, and it seems we ought to be as proud of having led the way in environmental conservation as we are of our enlightened constitution. The natural treasures we inherited from our forebears are not to be taken for granted, especially during a time when they are under attack.

When Yellowstone was proclaimed the first national park, no one was thinking in terms of ecosystems.  But the same forces that opposed its creation are at work today.  Our heritage of wild land is at risk for lack of diligent defense, as are the tenets of our constitution.

Here’s a quote from one of my heroes, Rachel Carson, who expresses the concern better than I can. “I believe natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society. I believe that whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man’s spiritual growth.”
Canada geese flying serenely through sunrise on Yellowstone Lake.  How many citizens would be able to describe some of the natural history phenomena occurring in this scene?  Photo courtesy NPS / Jacob W. Frank
Canada geese flying serenely through sunrise on Yellowstone Lake. How many citizens would be able to describe some of the natural history phenomena occurring in this scene? Photo courtesy NPS / Jacob W. Frank
She wrote those words long before people started stepping into traffic because they are focused on their mobile devices. Before the multiple distractions that occupy our attention daily. Developers of virtual reality platforms that allow users to create imagined lives in an imaginary world go so far as to state that the physical world will come to seem like an “archaic, loveable place” but one that is no longer crucial.

No thanks. The real world is good enough for me. But many of my fellow citizens plug into these web-based worlds, finding solace and escape from the duties, distractions or the mundane sameness of their real lives. Or else they accomplish approximately the same thing by spending hours on Facebook instead of going for a walk.

These trends make us increasingly removed from our home planet and the dependence we have on it, replacing natural beauty with the artificial, the priceless with the ordinary. 

We know every detail of some internet game but nothing about the wildflowers that grow beside the road. We turn away from the real world and its problems, from climate change (nothing we can do about it, right?) to saving the last patch of open space in an urban neighborhood (it just sold, it’s zoned commercial—nothing we can do about it, right?). Our view of life becomes circumscribed, our imaginations stunted.  We feel helpless and hopeless.
"We know every detail of some internet game but nothing about the wildflowers that grow beside the road. We turn away from the real world and its problems, from climate change (nothing we can do about it, right?) to saving the last patch of open space in an urban neighborhood (it just sold, it’s zoned commercial—nothing we can do about it, right?). Maybe what we are is simply lazy."
Maybe what we are is simply lazy. When I say ‘we’ I don’t mean everybody, of course. I’m talking about that part of the collective we that has reason to feel hopeless, isn’t motivated to try to change, and didn’t learn the basics in school. That cadre can include us all from time to time.

Lack of education isn’t the only thing that influences what we care about. Each of us holds knowledge that feels meaningful. Our brains can’t easily contain all that comes our way, so we have to choose.

I worry that what we are choosing to ignore may be more important than we realize. We’re turning our backs, in favor of fake and entertaining news, on the things that sustain us as Americans. Our history and values, and those government institutions that have done the people’s work for many decades. 

Our sense of fairness to others. The pursuit of happiness depends on having decent shelter, enough to eat, access to clean air and water and someplace quiet and leafy to sit once in a while. As the wealth gap increases more Americans lack these basic needs.

Some of us remember those images from the Apollo 8 mission, the blue earth in black space as it set over the shadow of the moon. Those photos said something profound about the gift we have in the real world. People predicted that after everyone had seen that picture we’d stop polluting the air and water and stop killing each other.

I guess human nature trumps a photograph, but wouldn’t it be nice to imagine that we would come to appreciate this gift and all the others so freely bestowed by the planet we inhabit? It’s a gift we can easily destroy as we rush around in our busy lives. One that disappears quietly, unnoticed, until it’s too far gone to retrieve.

What can we do about it? The dictionary defines civics as the study of the privileges and obligations of citizens. We are heavy on the privilege side, so perhaps it’s time to think more about those obligations. Voting for example. A privilege many people worldwide would love to have.

We’re urged to contact our elected representatives about issues that concern us, though often that can feel pointless when their minds are made up and nothing citizens have to say will change them. We can focus on county commissioners and school boards and town councils. For those too shy or busy to show up at meetings, there’s email. Pick an hour out of the week to do our civic duty and after a year we each will have spent 52 hours as an active and engaged citizen. 

In a country that prides itself on its government structure as a representative democracy, it is the least we can do.

We may go down in flames on the losing side of arguments about government and the environment, but I’ll cast my lot with these current underdogs, convinced that we will be on the right side of history.
Susan Marsh
About Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh spent three decades with the U.S. Forest Service and is today an award-winning writer living in Jackson Hole.
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