Lack of emphasis on civics, government and political history is astonishing

It is worth recalling that the United States does a few things better than any other country. And no, I don’t mean things like playing baseball or charging high interest rates.

I am talking about things such as protecting civil liberties; having an expectation that justice will be served through our court system; making a real effort to balance freedom versus security; and adhering, most of the time, to the tenets of our Constitution – the oldest such written and continually enforced document in the history of the world at a mere 235 years old. And, most important and most distinguishable, due process.

These things may be our greatest exports. The U.S. has this marvelous document, the very foundation of our freedoms – and yet, most citizens have less understanding of it than many people in Western Europe have. As a part-time resident of Italy, I have talked to many Europeans about such matters, and they all agree the single greatest difference between the U.S. and their country – no matter the country – is America’s system of justice. The belief that the courts will be there to at least provide an opportunity to seek and get justice is seen as the great advantage the U.S. has over others. In many other countries, there is no equivalent expectation that the rule of law will kick in, instead of putting people at the mercy of some authority’s arbitrary edict.

With so much to set America apart, our lack of emphasis on civics, government and political history is simply astonishing. This is the biggest education problem in our country.

These topics need to be emphasized, not shunted aside. We have lost our sense of citizenship in this country.

I could give many examples, but two suffice.

First, modern discourse reveals that very few Americans understand the difference between a right and a privilege. Rights, such as those enumerated in the Bill of Rights, are God-given – to everyone. It doesn’t matter when they are born, or where. A true “right,” such as the right to free speech or the right to free exercise of religion, belongs to each person automatically, and cannot therefore be taken away by anyone, including a government. Our U.S. Constitution not only guarantees this but has language prohibiting the government from even trying. Brilliant! Everything else allowed under the law is a privilege, meaning it is given by the government and therefore can be taken away. A driver’s license, for example.

As for the second example: When Americans get their total understanding of an important historical figure from a Broadway play instead of through respected learning avenues, you know there is a deficit of teaching and we are in a sad state of affairs.

This brings me to the many recent postings lamenting the poor civics scores in school. I have harped about this abysmal lack of knowledge in speeches, college classes I taught and in general political discussions

This lack of civic knowledge that has crept in over the last few decades is one of the major reasons for the present state of affairs in politics and governing. There are other reasons of course, but an educated citizenry on these matters goes a long way toward enforcing civil political discourse. Not to mention reducing our exposure to pompous, ill-informed candidates and elected officials, from both major parties.

If we have an informed citizenry, then a person cannot get away with speaking non-truths. A better understanding of the basics of our country’s founding can go a long way toward improving civic knowledge. Unfortunately, a majority of our citizens no longer have this understanding.

This devolution has many fathers: social media and dishonest media coverage, among others. But in my view the biggest reason for this retreat from civics in school has been the abnormal push on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Our never-ceasing efforts to “keep up” with other countries in these subjects to the exclusion of others is abhorrent!

Of course we should teach the STEM disciplines and other important subjects. But not to the exclusion of citizenship. There should not be an “either/or” curriculum.

That said, if certain cultures excel in one of these, guess who excels in the other? It’s time that we take pride in the excellent civic culture given to us by the Founding Fathers, because it is the basis for all other strengths we hope to build.

As Thomas Jefferson emphasized, a democratic nation cannot long endure without the education of its people. Some 240 years later, we are still grappling with that.

Steve Anthony served as chief of staff to Georgia Speaker of the House Tom Murphy, executive director of the Democratic Party of Georgia, and was a lecturer in political science at Georgia State University. He now splits his time between Atlanta and Italy.

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