Noah Webster, one of America’s most renowned educators and author of our nation’s first textbooks, wrote in 1788 that, “Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country.”
The purpose of education, he believed, is not just to teach reading, writing and math, but to disseminate important information about our rights as Americans and “implant in the minds of the American youth the principles of virtue and of liberty and inspire them with ... an inviolable attachment to their own country.”
Webster knew, just as our founders did, that civics education is an essential ingredient for liberty and good citizenship and that knowledge of our country must be renewed each generation.
But for years, studies have shown that we aren’t engaged in that renewal. Comedian Jay Leno famously tapped the rich vein of civics ignorance in his candid man-on-the-street interview routines, “Jay-walking.” Time and
again, he found that while many people have trouble identifying a picture of George Washington or describing the meaning of Independence Day, for example, everyone is familiar with Joe Camel or Mr. Peanut.
A new survey of social studies teachers, conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, backs up that anecdotal evidence with hard data.
The study asks an important question: What are social studies teachers trying to impart to students about citizenship and what it means to be an American?
First some good news (with room for improvement): 83 percent of social studies teachers surveyed believe that the United States is a “unique country that stands for something special in the world” and 82 percent believe it is important for high school students to “respect and appreciate their country but know its shortcomings.”
Unfortunately, the study finds, teachers may not be transmitting those beliefs to students with adequate instruction. Just 20 percent of teachers believe that teaching key facts, such as dates and major historical events, is a top priority, but about half believe that instilling values like tolerance and community service is a top priority.
Moreover, less than two-thirds believe it’s essential to instruct their students on federalism, checks and balances, and separation of powers. Remember, these are key concepts of our political system.
Finally, many teachers no longer rely on textbooks. Two-thirds say that they use them “less and less” in the classroom.
Civics ignorance is rooted in a combination of problems in America’s schools. But there’s no reason to believe Americans are uninterested in our history. Indeed, it seems Americans want to learn more. History books and historical biographies, for adults and children alike, soar to the top of the bestseller list. Families pack American history museums, and millions tuned into HBO in 2008 to watch the miniseries chronicling John Adams’ life.
Schools have the power to make America’s fascinating history come alive for our students — and in the process produce good citizens.
Unfortunately, that’s not happening today. It is essential schools recommit themselves to producing knowledgeable citizens who have faith in American ideas and values.
Sen. Jon Kyl is the Senate Republican Whip and serves on the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees. Visit his Web site at www.kyl.senate.gov or his YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/senjonkyl.