Veteran talk show host Jay Leno has aired some classic segments in which he’d ask random people questions you would think they’d know, but these citizens are, in fact, clueless. During a typical “Jay Walking” Q&A, he’d pose questions like: “What are the three branches of government?” Or, “What is the Bill of Rights?” Or, “What does ‘Take the Fifth’ mean?” Amazingly, so many people are ignorant of these basic things. It’s worth noting that according to several inside sources, the ignorant people Leno chats up are very easy to find.
The segment is always humorous, but when the laughing stops, you realize that a profound number of Americans are just plain ignorant when it comes to history and civics, and it starts with the young. In fact, the results of the most recent NAEP U.S. history and civics test, taken in 2022, showed that just 13% of eighth graders met proficiency standards for U.S. history, meaning they could “explain major themes, periods, events, people, ideas and turning points in the country’s history.” Additionally, only about 20% of students scored at or above the proficient level in civics. Both scores represent all-time lows on these two tests.
The multiple choice questions on the NAEP are very basic, such as, “Which of the following reasons best explains why many people supported the Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the sale of alcohol?” Another asks, “What were European explorers such as Henry Hudson looking for when they sailed the coast and rivers of North America in the 1600s?”
To be sure, the hysterical response to COVID has indeed left scars, but even more damaging is the time spent by many teachers advancing things like “diversity, equity and inclusion” and other fads-du-jour.
Recently, the Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, released annually to celebrate Constitution Day (Sept. 17), finds that in 2023, 66% of Americans could name all three branches of government, 10% named just two, 7% knew only one, and 17% couldn’t name any. Additionally, when respondents were asked to name the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, 77% named freedom of speech, but just 40% knew that freedom of religion is included, 33% named the right to assembly, 28% knew freedom of the press, and a paltry 9% mentioned the right to petition the government.
The U.S. Dept. of Education certainly is of no help on this matter. Many public schools are being manipulated and infiltrated by state-sponsored non-government organizations that are spreading radical social justice-style activism under the guise of civics. Parent rights activist Tamra Farah reports, “The pack leader is Educating for American Democracy (EAD), which conveniently slipped into schools nationwide in 2021, masquerading as civics. It is routinely introduced to state boards of education as a framework to inform state standards, forcing all lessons and textbooks to conform to its outline for curricula.”
EAD urges teachers “to affirm diverse identities and provide inclusive instruction and examples.” This is clearly a nod to the progressive agenda of BLM, CRT, and DEI.
A relentless advocate for civics instruction in American classrooms is Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He points out that a U.S. Citizenship Test has been in place since 1986. The exam consists of 100 questions about American history, our system of government, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens. Pondiscio explains, “Immigration officials administer the test orally, asking would-be citizens seeking naturalization 10 of the 100 questions; they must answer at least six correctly to pass. The questions aren’t particularly difficult. They consist of things like naming any one of the three branches of government, how many U.S. senators there are, and naming a right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. Rock-bottom, basic stuff.”
Interestingly, while 96% of immigrants seeking naturalization pass the test, a 2018 survey revealed that just 13% of Americans at large knew when the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Amazingly, a majority couldn’t say which countries the U.S. fought in World War II, and only one in four could say why American colonists fought a war against Great Britain. Importantly, older Americans did better, with 74% answering at least six in 10 questions correctly. Pondiscio notes, “But among those under the age of 45, only one in five passes, which says a lot about the state of civics in U.S. schools, whose founding purpose once upon a time was to prepare the citizenry for self-government.”
Today, civic education is more important than ever because of the impact social media has on us. Memes can go viral in a matter of seconds, while the time-honored tradition of slogging through books to become learned has become passé.
And clearly, it is not only K-12 that is failing our students. So much of the problem belongs with our colleges, and can be seen when comparing Democratic and Republican voter registration among faculty by academic discipline. In his 2016 study, Brooklyn College professor Mitchell Langbert found that the ratio of Democrats to Republicans at 40 leading U.S. universities was 4.5:1 in economics, 8.6:1 in law, and 33.5:1 in history. His 2018 study, with a different sample, found that the ratio of Democrats to Republicans was 5.5:1 in economics, 8.2:1 in political science, and 17.4:1 in history. While it is certainly not incumbent upon professors to put their personal politics on the table, all too often these days, they do, which results in indoctrinated students.
The recent Hamas-induced atrocities perpetrated on Israel provide an instructive point about our colleges. Immediately after Jewish women were abducted, raped, and murdered and their children brutalized and killed, countless college students and professors across the country cheered. At Harvard, 34 student groups pledged their support to Hamas. At UCLA, right after the onset of the invasion, professors gave extra credit for attending a “teach-in” pushing anti-Israel propaganda. In New York, the president of NYU’s Student Bar Association wrote that “Israel bears full responsibility for this tremendous loss of life.”
While there is no simple fix for evil and stupid, ignorance can be cured with education. But sadly, counting on government-run schools for an unbiased civic education is a hit-and-miss proposition. As such, parents must take over and home-school or, at the least, send their kid to a school that they are absolutely certain teaches real history and civics. Your kids and the country, in fact, are depending on you.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.