Students' knowledge of civics, history appalling

February 22, 2005

In "Requiem For A Nun," novelist William Faulkner observes that "The past is never dead. It's not even past.'' But Faulkner, the creator of legendary Yoknapatawpha County, whose characters struggled under the burden of history, could never have imagined the cultural cluelessness of the average American high school student.

Although social studies is a routine aspect of K-12 education, a host of reports shows most students are dangerously ignorant of some of the most basic concepts of American civic life. It's clear that schools should be doing a far better job than they are now doing to prepare these young people for intelligent participation in our representative democracy.

A massive survey of 112,000 students, 8,000 teachers and 500 principals conducted by the University of Connecticut and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation concludes that "a majority of high school students are apathetic toward, and ignorant of, Americans' First Amendment rights."

When read the First Amendment, which states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances," nearly three-fourths of students admitted they were either uncertain how they felt about it while others said they simply took it for granted.

But that's the good news.

Three quarters of students surveyed mistakenly maintained that burning the American flag is illegal. Half of all those surveyed said the government has the right to censor the Internet and more than a third characterize the First Amendment, itself, as going "too far" in its guarantees of religion, public speech and the press.

Judging from the responses of teachers and school administrators in that same study, those attitudes are perhaps not all that surprising. For example, only half of all teachers surveyed claimed they "personally think about their First Amendment rights.'' An only slightly larger number of principals - 56 percent - agreed with that statement.

The Education Commission of the States has found that although a majority of states - 41 - require students to learn about government, civics or citizenship in some form, only five states - Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and New York - require a high school exit exam in civics or related topics.

Tennessee is one of just 22 states that offer standardized tests in social studies in any form and is one of just 13 states to include social studies in school accountability ratings.

But a lack of knowledge and appreciation for the First Amendment isn't the only item missing from students' cultural baggage.

According to a recent National Association of Education Progress (NAEP) report by the U.S. Department of Education, the majority of high school seniors have an abysmally poor grasp of their own nation's history.

Student performance on the NAEP report was divided into three categories: basic, proficient and advanced. The "basic" rating is the bottom of the achievement ladder.

A "proficient'' rating means the student is performing at grade level and an "advanced'' rating denotes a superior understanding of the material.

The NAEP history test found that an alarming 57 percent of high school seniors couldn't perform at even the basic level.

Approximately a third - 32 percent - performed at the basic level, while 11 percent performed grade-level work. Only 1 percent of students were rated as advanced.

Especially now, when America is combating terrorist threats at home and abroad, these scores demonstrate an appalling apathy that, left unchanged, challenges our very future as a democratic and free people.

Scores like these demonstrate a dangerous spiritual and cultural discontinuity that must be repaired. While the past is not a perfect guide to the present or the future, it is one of the few we have. A society that does not know where it has been cannot know where it is. It is like an individual suffering amnesia - disoriented.

If we are to preserve what Ronald Reagan used to call "the last best hope of man on Earth,'' we had better dust off those history and civics textbooks and begin reading and teaching from them again - and fast.

Ultimately, our ability to intelligently defend and preserve what we as a nation hold dear depends on our knowledge and understanding of the ideas and values that bind us together in a common civic culture.

It is only through an intimate acquaintance with that shared history that we can hope to understand our past and contemplate our collective future.

Copyright 2004 Kingsport Times-News.