Friday, July 1, 2011

"I pledge allegiance to the Flag...and to the Republic for which it stands..."

As Independence Day approaches, a depressing article [especially to a retired social studies teacher], "American Amnesia" by William Damon:
The New York Times headline from May could not have been more compelling: "Failing grades on civics exam called a 'crisis.'" The accompanying story reported bleak news from the latest National Assessment of Student Progress (widely known as the "nation's report card"). Among our present crop of high school seniors, only one in four scored at least "proficient" in knowledge of U. S. citizenship. Of all the academic subjects tested, civics and the closely linked subject of history came in last: "a smaller proportion of fourth and eighth graders demonstrated proficiency in civics than in any other subject the federal government has tested since 2005, except history, American students' worst subject."

For the past ten years or more, virtually every glimpse into American students' views on citizenship has revealed both a lack of understanding and a lack of interest. An American Enterprise Institute study earlier this year found that most social studies teachers doubted that their students grasped core U.S. citizenship concepts such as the Bill of Rights or the separation of powers. A recent Department of Education study found that only nine percent of U.S. high school students are able to cite reasons why it is important for citizens to participate in a democracy, and only six percent are able to identify reasons why having a constitution benefits a country. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) has reported a decades-long, step-wise decline in interest in political affairs among college freshmen—from over 60 percent of the population in 1966 to less than half that percentage in our current period.

For the past ten years, our research team at Stanford has interviewed broad cross-sections of American youth about what U.S. citizenship means to them. Here is one high school student's reply, not atypical: "We just had (American citizenship) the other day in history. I forget what it was." Another student told us that "being American is not really special….I don’t find being an American citizen very important." Another replied, "I don’t want to belong to any country. It just feels like you are obligated to this country. I don’t like the whole thing of citizen...I don’t like that whole thing. It’s like, citizen, no citizen; it doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like to be a good citizen—I don’t know, I don’t want to be a citizen...it’s stupid to me."

Such statements reflect more than an ignorance of citizenship—though they may provide us with clues about the source of students' present-day lack of knowledge. Beyond not knowing what U.S. citizenship entails, many young Americans today are not motivated to learn about how to become a fully engaged citizen of their country. They simply do not care about their status as American citizens. Notions such as civic virtue, civic duty, or devotion to their country mean little to them. This is not true of all young people today—there are exceptions in virtually every community—but it accurately describes a growing trend that encompasses a large portion of our younger generation. .... [more]
American Amnesia | Hoover Institution