The Pew Research Center and the U.S. Department of Education, respectively, issued recent findings on citizens' knowledge of current affairs and student scores of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The findings showed broad failures. If policymakers don't soon pay attention to such failures, the perpetuation of citizen understanding of the basic concepts of the American system will continue to be at risk.
Too many Americans don't understand the principles of a free society based on freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. In the aftermath of the tragic Baltimore riots in April, the Baltimore prosecutor failed to emphasize the innocent-until-proven-guilty guarantees of the Constitution for those charged with crime. In the recent Texas shooting by two men upset by the extremist speech of a group mocking Muslim cartoons, media outlets condemned the speech because of its admittedly offensive nature, failing to recognize that most speech in America is constitutionally protected, no matter how outrageous or politically incorrect.
When Americans are oblivious of basic constitutional principles, American society suffers. Such omissions are akin to a vehicle driver being unaware of the rules of the road, not understanding the safety importance of traffic lights, stop signs or rights-of-way at intersections. Such ignorance is bound to result in a crash and injury.
When news commentators condemn a person's right to speak out, especially if such speech is politically offensive, it shows a misunderstanding of the Constitution's First Amendment protections. The First Amendment, protecting speech, was the first one the Founders devised, not a later number of the first ten Bill of Rights. Adopted on Dec. 15, 1791, the First Amendment regarding free speech has been interpreted many times by the Supreme Court. Obscene speech, school speech, false speech, political speech — all have been upheld by the court, with some restrictions, because free speech is a vital constitutional right that laws and courts must protect if American society is to be perpetuated through adherence to the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment also protects religious freedom, a free press, the citizen's right to petition the government and free assembly.
The Pew Research Center News IQ results led to the April 28, 2015, Politico headline "Americans bomb Pew test of basic political knowledge." The Department of Education's Nation's Report Card, revealed on April 21, 2015, contained findings showing students' failure to grasp basic concepts in the 2014 study of civics and social studies. The NAEP is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what American students know and can do in various subject areas. Its findings covered student assessments on the topics of science, mathematics, reading, civics, the arts, economics, geography, U.S. history and technology and engineering literacy. The last national assessment of student learning across America was conducted in 2010.
The latest results show that of the more than 29,000 students tested, only 18 percent of eighth-graders reached the proficient level, with little improvement since 2010. Civics, geography and U.S. history were the categories surveyed, with 15 to 25 percent of the questions devoted to such topics as the "roles of citizens," "U.S. relationship to other nations," "government embodiment of American democracy," "foundations of American political life" and defining "civic life, politics, government."
What do low test scores mean?
American students are not learning the basics of American citizenship and fail to grasp the concepts of a free society that have changed the world because of their existence. Without change, leaders of tomorrow — today's students — will undertake leadership obligations in Congress, state legislatures, city councils, school boards and other important venues without the knowledge necessary to perpetuate the constitutional freedoms that have developed over two centuries.
What should be done?
A national effort to focus learning on citizenship and government should be undertaken with the same vigor with which America has undertaken an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). A goal of improving NAEP scores should be established nationally and embraced by 2016 candidates and school officials everywhere. Corporate America should publicly support civic learning as it has supported STEM learning. Various states are passing laws requiring graduating seniors to pass the immigrant citizenship test as a condition of graduation, and many states are requiring more civic learning. All states should adopt basic civics requirements for graduation.
President Kennedy once famously said: "Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to an untiring effort." Only by emphasizing civics now will the constitutional understanding of American democracy and the good citizenship we expect be enjoyed by future generations.
Nethercutt is a former U.S. representative from Washington state, serving from 1995 to 2005.