Civics education, America's great equalizer, can make us whole again
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There's a problem brewing in America affecting our young people.  It's the lack of civic learning for past generations since the 1960s.  

Many Americans (notably author/historian David McCullough, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and actor Richard Dreyfuss, among others) have spoken out in favor of more civic learning in our schools.  It's having an effect. Some states have passed laws requiring high school seniors to pass the U.S. immigration test to graduate, the same test that applicants for American citizenship must pass.

If we require passage of the test for citizenship and voting by newcomers to America, what about those of us who were born here? Shouldn't we have to pass the test to be sure we know as much about America as new citizens do?

Learning about the justice system in America is a focus for Justice O'Connor for her iCivics organization, helping high school juniors and teachers better understand the constitutional provisions that assure justice for all in America.  Perhaps if more American officials knew about the Founders' intentions for America, set forth in the Constitution, our country would be less polarized and Congress' approval ratings would be higher.


Every federal public official, elected or appointed, must raise his or her right hand and swear to "preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution.  One wonders how many of those officials has  read or studied the Constitution?

Knowledge of U.S. history, government, economics and foreign policy is waning — because it hasn't been taught for years.  When an interviewer asked 10 random American University students recently to name one U.S. Senator, only 1 in 10 could, but all 10 knew the name of the hit song from the movie, "Frozen." It's not stupidity that prevents such knowledge — its ignorance, and lack of study.

Many may ask: Why must I know U.S. history and how government works? Why should I know economic principles or foreign policy developments? Because knowing about America makes us all better Americans. Jurors who understand the American justice system are better able to follow a judge's jury instructions and render justice in a case. Informed voters can better hold officials accountable. If we expect immigrants seeking citizenship to possess basic American knowledge, what about the rest of us?

One millennial asked why he needs to know about civics in today's instant gratification world, with lots of online information available. It may help him get a job since many CEOs understand the importance of civics

But most Americans need to know basic U.S. history, how government works, basic economic principles and foreign policy developments — so they can be better citizens, hold public officials accountable and discern how government and federal policies affect their lives. Most Americans can't complete their own tax returns — the tax code is too complicated.  Most businesses can't maneuver the maze of government — there are too many state, federal and local rules, laws and regulations.  Most voters accept ballot frontrunners, rather than encourage our best people to seek public office. No wonder around 90 percent of all incumbents are reelected.

After replacing a sitting Speaker of the House in 1994 for the first time since 1860, many friends told me they wouldn't do my job or run for office for a million dollars.  Of 330 million Americans, surely officials can be elected who don't perpetuate current polarization or care less for reelection and more for what's best for America.  Former New Hampshire Member Charlie Bass once told his voters, "I'm going to do what's right for our country, whether I get reelected or not." Though later defeated, he cared deeply enough for America to vote its best interests.

President Trump's election was a triumph for a candidate who advocated for those being left behind by an American system that ignored their needs, highlighting one that favored the rich and well-connected.

Civic learning can be an important equalizer for all affected by the American system.  When citizens believe that officials are working for them, and not the other way around, shouting matches at Congressional Members' town hall meetings may cease as participants realize officials are doing their best for the citizens, being honest about public policies and striving for sound, principled outcomes.

Likewise, if civically learned, the public will be knowledgeable about the nuances of public policies and more understanding of a public official’s role.

Civic learning can avoid a crisis for America.

George R. Nethercutt Jr. is a former U.S. representative from Washington state, serving from 1995 to 2005.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.