By Katherine Dominek, ’19 and Megan Miller, ’20
United States civics and history play a big role in the lives of American citizens. However, a major flaw casts a shadow over these aspects; many citizens don’t actually know this basic information. U.S. civics and history determine government actions, for example the roles of the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches. According to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, only 50 percent of the general public can actually name all three of these branches. The fact that citizens don’t know this basic information, is immensely concerning to government officials, educators, and citizens alike. Especially during election season, when the knowledge of civics is at its greatest level of importance.
A survey, created by Journalism I students, was conducted in Upper Arlington, among three groups of the population: adults, high schoolers, and 8th graders. Questions on the survey were examples taken from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Naturalization Test. The information was used to gauge how knowledgeable, as a community, Upper Arlington is with basic U.S. history and civics. The data was then compared to results of national surveys and assessments.
The Nation’s Report Card compiles information in order to evaluate how well U.S. students, in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades, do in different subjects; this includes data for U.S. history and civics assessments. Overall, the data showed that twelfth grade students are doing poorly in these particular subjects. When broken down by subject, twice as many students scored at or above proficiency standards in civics then in U.S. history. Compared to the survey of approximately 400 students from Upper Arlington High School, the local results were considerably better. On average, students answered 14 out of 18 questions correctly. With respect to national data, where on average 18 percent scored proficiently in U.S. history and civics, 77.6 percent of Upper Arlington students scored proficiently in the same topics. “Hopefully… teachers are doing a fairly good job at teaching [students] about the basics of government and United States history,” American History teacher Joe Endres said. Upper Arlington High School is known for having a ‘standard of excellence’ due to high ratings in state standardized tests and by winning state academic awards. Therefore, this result was to be expected.
The above video by PoliTech shows a survey of college students from George Mason University, located in Washington D.C.. The poll was composed of photos of Vice President Joe Biden, Ronald Reagan, and Kim Kardashian. Participants were prompted to name each one. The majority of students questioned either refused or incorrectly answered the photos depicting Biden and Reagan, while all were able to correctly identify Kardashian. “I don’t care about politics,” one student being surveyed said. Can one assume that younger generations are beginning to lack U.S. historical and political context, or can older generations be just as unknowing?
“I think that the majority of Americans profoundly lack a basic, simple understanding of how the government works,” American History teacher at Hastings Middle School Jeff Elliott said. According to the local survey, adult residents scored relatively similar to national results created by Gallup, a company that “ provides data-driven news based on U.S. and world polls, daily tracking and public opinion research” (Gallup). On average, the results ranged from one to two-thirds of the participants knowing the correct answer. A common theme that occurred while trying to gain participants for the local poll was that many declined due to lack of self-confidence. This is also apparent in the national results when people refused to answer the questions. It could be that those questioned understand that they don’t know the correct response, and afraid to embarrass themselves. This lack of knowledge can alter the mindset of Americans.
A recent example was this past presidential election. Some citizens feared that rights were going to be removed, rights that the president doesn’t even have power over. “People are all in arms because the claim is going around that Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton are going to take away the Second Amendment. Well, the President doesn’t come anywhere near the amendments to the Constitution of the United States for good reason,” Elliott said. “People get upset because they don’t really understand how government works. You know, you don’t have to listen too long to the political conversation in this country to realize most people don’t really know what goes on. They get scared because people make them scared.”
The 8th grade curriculum in Upper Arlington consists of the the early stages of the United States, including the wars that the U.S. participated in and the basics of how U.S. government functions. Overall, local results were higher than those of national results. Nationally approximately 1-in-5 students scored at or above proficiency standards. Locally, approximately 3-in-5 students scored at or above proficiency standards.
According to a study conducted by the American Bar Association, “the study ranked history standards in 49 states and the District of Columbia (Rhode Island has no mandatory history standards, only suggested guidelines) for “content and rigor” and “clarity and specificity” on a scale of A to F. Only South Carolina got straight A’s. Nine states’ standards earned a grade of A- or B. But a majority of states—28 in all—had standards ratings of D or F, the study found.” They concluded this due to an error in the American education system and younger generations lack of interest in politics and government.
Major questions people should be asking are, ‘How much does one truly understand the subject?’ and ‘How much do we remember later in life?’ According to local polls, adults only did slightly better than that of an eighth grader, who has currently only been taught half the curriculum. This gives a negative assumption of what citizens of the United States truly know, though it could possibly show that the education of the younger generation has improved since older residents were educated in these subjects.
All-in-all the lack of knowledge of U.S. history and civics will still be an issue for the nation as a whole. The more educated and active citizens are with national matters, the more likely the nation will be led by the most suitable politicians. Whether it’s election season or not, knowledge of U.S history and civics are key for day-to-day politics. Some people believe that all citizens should take a version of the USCIS Naturalization Test in order to participate in activities (i.e. voting), but this violates the rights of citizens guaranteed in the Constitution. Though Elliot believes that it’s important for citizens to know the basics of the U.S. government, he thinks an assessment needed in order to vote is “ridiculous”. “That’s like inviting the entire neighborhood to come and take a look at your car and give instructions on how to fix it. No, I want to take it to the mechanic, thank you very much,” Elliot said.