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We can't ignore alarms about the need for civics education any longer

We can't ignore alarms about the need for civics education any longer
© Julia Nikhinson

Like the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that pulled the U.S. directly into World War II, the siege on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by a violent mob will be remembered as a “day which will live in infamy.” Much will be written about the circumstances that led to the desecration of the Capitol, that most sacred symbol of the American ideal, by our fellow citizens. And it is both urgent and imperative that we hold to account President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Iran says onus is on US to rejoin nuclear deal on third anniversary of withdrawal Assaults on Roe v Wade increasing MORE and all who were involved. 

But as we move forward, it’s just as urgent to consider how we can build the foundations of a more unified nation with a deeper common understanding of what it really means to be American. We must ensure that a president never again can exploit the ignorance and anger of Americans to undermine the foundations of our democracy. Part of the answer lies in civics education.

In her tenure as first lady during the turbulent 1960s, Lady Bird Johnson said, “The clash of ideas is the sound of liberty.” Indeed, political differences are an intrinsic part of American life, but so, too, are the myriad ways our Founders enshrined remedies to them. The U.S. Constitution lays out peaceful, structured and just means for citizens to seek redress of their grievances — the rights to vote, peacefully assemble, petition our representatives, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and more. And it also, of course, establishes the backbone of our national identity and a set of core principles that all people are created equal, that our government functions with checks and balances to prevent any one person or party from having too much power. 

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The events of Jan. 6 show us that, now more than ever, Americans need a primer on why, how and to what end our constitutional republic was built. Knowledge is power.

Those of the unhinged mob are beyond redemption. They did not riot because they missed a civics class. But millions of Americans lack the basic understanding of how our system works, which makes them easy targets for anyone who might seek to undermine our norms and institutions. If more Americans understood these foundations better, they might be less easily swayed by another’s ravings. As we have seen, such understanding is vital to our national security.

In his prescient 2019 year-end address, just before presiding over President Trump’s impeachment trial last January, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts sounded the alarm that American ignorance of basic civics posed a clear and present danger to national unity and to democracy itself. As he stated, the principles of our Founding Fathers “leave no place for mob violence,” and “the public’s need to understand our government … [has never been] more vital.”  

It was already deeply evident that the president had been using social media to promulgate false information on a mass scale — and Americans were falling for it. That so many now view a free press as an “enemy of the people” or believe it is possible to overturn an election in Congress, or that the vice president could single-handedly block its certification, speaks to a deep ignorance of the balance of powers so fundamental to how our system works.

Chief Justice Roberts and many others who raised red flags in recent years were right to worry. Polling has shown that a broad swath of Americans lack basic civics knowledge essential to understanding the dangers Trump’s presidency posed. The Annenberg Center, which does the most comprehensive reviews of American civics knowledge, reported in its latest survey that just two in five American adults (39 percent) can correctly name the three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial — let alone understand the separate and co-equal powers of each. Few Americans have read the Constitution, and two out of three would be unable to pass our country’s citizenship exam. 

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Is it any wonder so many fell for the lies that Trump and his enablers have peddled?

Despite years of data and warnings from educators and historians about the dangers posed by this lack of civics education, our system continues to fail Americans in this regard. Thirty-one states require only a half-year of civics education and 10 states have no civics requirement at all. Without a basic understanding of our constitutional system, the foundations of democracy and the separation of powers enshrined by it, how can Americans discern fact from fiction? Without understanding what generations have fought and died for — those core principals of putting country before leader or party, the checks on power our Founders insisted on — how can they be the informed and empowered citizens that our system requires to survive? 

We must ensure that a majority of Americans understand the fundamentals of our extraordinary system well enough to recognize a threat to democracy when they see it.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, America mounted a military effort that not only protected our nation from our enemies but liberated the world from fascist tyranny. Now, we must launch a nationwide effort to educate our citizens on our own system of government, reinforcing a set of core values around which we can find greater unity and common purpose. Just as it was 80 years ago, our future is at stake. 

Lauren Leader is co-founder and CEO of All In Together, a nonpartisan women’s civic education organization. Follow her on Twitter @laurenleaderAIT.

Mark K. Updegrove is the president and CEO of the LBJ Library and Foundation and the presidential historian for ABC. Follow him on Twitter @MarkKUpdegrove.