One nation, undereducated about itself

In E Pluribus Unum, the Bradley Foundation questions whether Americans are learning about the ideas that hold us together as a nation.

While most U.S. citizens told a Harris poll that there is a unique American identity, a majority said it’s weakening.

And “even more troubling is that younger Americans – on whom our continued national identity depends – are less likely than older Americans to believe in a unique national identity or in a unique American culture.” Indeed only 45 percent of 18-34 year old Americans believe that the U.S. Constitution should trump international law in instances where there is a conflict.

The report calls for “a renewed focus on the teaching of American history” in K-12 schools and college, as well as a campaign “to ensure immigrants learn English, understand democratic institutions, and participate fully in the American way of life.”

Opposing multilingual ballots and bilingual classes, the report warns of disunity: “Historical ignorance, civic neglect and social fragmentation might achieve what a foreign invader could not.”

The report is too pessimistic, writes David Broder in the Washington Post.

What disturbs the Bradley scholars is evidence that our generation is failing to educate the next one on the essentials of the American experiment. “On the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Civics Test,” the report notes, “the majority of eighth graders could not explain the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Only 5 percent of seniors could accurately describe the way presidential power can be checked by Congress and the Supreme Court.”

Broder sees “plenty of vitality in the American system,” citing the record turn-out of young voters this year and the willingness of young people to volunteer in their communities.

Like Broder, I see a lot of vitality in America. Most Americans and most immigrants share a set of values: We govern ourselves, we speak as we please, we worship as we please, we tolerate those who make different choices.

I do wish students learned more civics and history.

Have a festive Fourth of July. I’m going to a friend’s ranch to watch him drive his Sherman tank over a couple of junker cars.

Update: Choose an American future rather than a multicultural future, writes Roger Kimball on Pajamas Media.

About Joanne


  1. A people who cannot identify how their government works, will have to depend on “those in charge” to negotiate for them. If you don’t understand your rights, you cannot exercise them.

    Peeps, we’re not talking about rocket science here. These are relatively uncomplicated concepts:

    Freedom of speech
    Freedom of religion (not FROM religion)
    Freedom of the press (which includes the electronic press)
    Freedom of assembly
    Right to petition government

    Etc., etc.

    While a body of law has grown up around them, the basic rights are simple.

    Likewise, the Constitution is relatively straightforward (unlike the EU constitution). As a 9th grade student (NOT gifted), I took Civics. Part of that class included having to READ the Constitution.

    Yeah, parts of it were tedious. But, overall, it was great to realize that the framework of our government was set out in understandable language, and made sense. I hate to think of the years taken off the life of the poor teacher who had to teach Civics – we were a difficult class, and only a few were honestly interested in the content.

    Today’s students get a mish-mosh of pop-culture and “news” in their social studies classes. Few have to explore the documents that guarantee our liberty. It makes me glad that I switched to physics teaching.

  2. Walter E. Wallis says:

    The folks who removed all patriotic symbols from the classroom probably think you can have a good marriage but never tell your wife you love her.

    As for tanks, I drove both the M4A3 Sherman and the M26 Pershing. The Sherman had a standard transmission and required double clutching and finesse to keep it moving between gears, I prefered the M26 automatic transmission for chasing jackrabbits. JJ, see if you can drive it and report back.

  3. Yes, let’s have *teachers* teaching patriotism.

    You’d more likely get more teachers wearing Che Guevara shirts.

  4. Funny thing, I don’t see voter turn out as a sign of vitality. In fact, it could mean any number of things. Take Zimbabwe, for example. People turned out in droves to re-elect dictator Robert Mugabe. Those who did not were beaten. Is that vitality?

    Moreover, in this country, I find the high level of voter turnout from the young to be not a sign of vitality, but a sign of their slavish attention to outlets like MTV, who push “voting is cool, go vote”. The problem here is that you’ve got people who don’t get how the nation was originally set up, a limited government designed to protect the natural rights of the citizens, voting for the candidate who promises the most goodies paid for by the rich and the corporations.

    Civic vitality, to me, would be young people embracing the idea of self-sufficiency and voting for candidates who would protect their rights as individuals, and fighting against those who would rob them of their liberty. Given the number of young people slavishly devoted to Barack Obama, I get the feeling that this isn’t happening.

    On a lighter note, I wish everyone here a safe and happy Independence Day!

  5. Frank Zavisca says:


    That Sherman Tank must produce a lot of carbon dioxide. You are destroying the Earth.

  6. “…the Constitution is relatively straightforward (unlike the EU constitution).”

    And in fairness, also unlike many state constitutions: generally, the newer, the worse. I went through high school (including AP Government and US History), undergrad (in DC) and law school without ever reading a state constitution, which I first did on the job as a staff attorney for a state legislature. That’s not encouraging, and doesn’t speak well to teaching about the importance of federalism.

  7. I wish people would talk more about freedom instead of just “democratic institutions.” You can have a democracy with no real freedom. Democracy just means that the power to operate the government is vested with the majority. As long as I have real freedom (financially and socially), I almost don’t care who controls the government. Of course, in order to have real freedom, we would have to roll back the federal system that has slowly been taking freedoms away from us for the last hundred years or so.

    Of course, I realize that people who still believe what they were taught in civics classes (where “progressive” ideas undergird everything) won’t see it this way.

  8. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Teachers, like all of us, need to be told when they offend. I fondly recall having told a Venceremos punk, displaying an AK47 badge that, like many other veterans, I eagerly anticipated their attempt to overthrow, since that would remove any constraints on my blowing him away.
    All cultures are not equal in worth, and some actions are indeed undesirable. Judgemental? Bet yer ass!

  9. Hope you had a good time, Joanne. I sure miss the car squishing.

    Frank, the tanks are rarely driven — they might get dirty. But two will appear in an upcoming episode of Mythbusters.

    As to teaching civics — I’d like to hear from some teachers, like Coach Brown. I left him a message asking him to come on over and weigh in.

  10. Oh, and I overlooked Dennis Fermoyle. I asked him to weigh in too.

  11. For the record, I’m a teacher.

  12. Yes, let’s have *teachers* teaching patriotism.

    You’d more likely get more teachers wearing Che Guevara shirts.

    Darren, do you live entirely in a world of your own paranoid imagination?

  13. I believe that it was an M60, not a Sherman; not to place too fine a point on the value of history 🙂

  14. First of all, I’ll stake my job on the 5% comment regarding checks and balances.

    I could go all kinds of directions with this. Let me see…..

    First off, U.S. Government/Economics is taught during the Senior year of high school, usually the year that many students (and some teachers) cash in.

    Then let’s move to the U.S. History standards, which demand that teachers go from the Civil War to current day in one year. Let’s be honest, there are plenty of pieces of U.S. History that don’t need to be addressed in such detail as to kill off interest. You also need adjust the necessity of information around events that are relevant to student’s lives. Most teachers barely get past Vietnam in U.S. History, at least those that I have spoken to. Sorry, but in my eyes the 1980’s are just as relevant to any other era in U.S. History, and deserve even more attention since it directly impacts the kids.

    -Learning the Constitution is important, and the kids want to know. But two problems are occurring. First of all, they don’t need to know all of it. Quick, without looking, tell me the 7th amendment. It’s an outdated amendment that has little point in current society. When you deal in the Constitution, talk about the issues that are important. The second problem with that is that teachers can’t seem to have a realistic and relevant conversation about politics, especially about the Constitution, without creating a bias or refusing to do their own research. I find that kids love going over Supreme Court briefs about relevant cases, but realize that those cases don’t consist of cases that are pre-Texas vs. Johnson. What about Internet privacy cases? Marijuana legalization cases? College admissions cases? Confederate flag cases? Gay rights cases? Kids gobble that stuff up. Hell, if you don’t talk about District of Columbia vs. Heller regarding the 2nd Amendment, you are just being too lazy to stay updated. Good retention works when kids find relevancy to issues.

    Teachers also should be updated on the technical side of government. Youtube has created massive access to political material,and Living Room Candidate has all the old political commercials, including the famous Johnson “Daisy” commercial that students are shocked at watching. Kids need to be exposed to journals, news sites, and political policy sites that are full of non-partisan information (key to kids making bills in my Mock Congress). Also, key them in on sites that are just plain interesting such as

    Finally, the big problem in having apathetic kids is that we have an apathetic society in terms of being proactive citizens. In a very contested primary, California (a state that is very political) only gets around half it’s registered voters to get out to vote. Consumerism is more important than politics. If you don’t believe me, take a look at what gas prices are doing to the American psyche. Trust in government, not just the President, but government over-all is near 20-25%. Yet Americans are not looking to make a contribution, they are looking for someone to do something to change the situation. Sorry people, but your kids are simply a reflection of you. You don’t care very much, and neither do your kids.

    And as a post script….

    -Kids need to be taught about government’s role with religion in a neutral tone. That means that it is very necessary to remind them that there IS a separation between “church and state”.

    -I strongly disagree that the Constitution is fairly straight forward. The Justices often feel the same way if you read their opinions.

    -Pop Culture enhances the teaching of history and civics. To not have a good balance of both documentation and culture is foolish.

    -I teach patriotism and will happily tell students that they live in the greatest county on Earth. In the same breath, I will also tell them that the 1st Amendment is part of that patriotism.

    -Youth voter turnout is historically awful.

    -I think Che Guevara is a murderous bastard who advocated nuclear attack on the United States.

    Any questions.

  15. Walter E. Wallis says:

    There will be a test.

  16. Mike wrote:

    > Darren, do you live entirely in a world of your own paranoid imagination?

    Oooh, another internet psychiatrist.

    So how’s business doc? Plenty of delusionals out there who, due to their psychosis, see the world differently from yourself?

    Cripes, I’m beginning to think that the real shortcoming of the public education system is that with all that phony emphasis on “higher-order thinking skills” there’s essentially no encouragement for higher-order thinking skills that require any more effort then that necessary to scratch an itch.

    Mike represents a case in point. If you can dismiss a differing viewpoint as evidence of mental defect then you hardly have to exercise lower-order thinking skills let alone higher. Mike’s psychiatric diagnosis obviously isn’t authoritative but A) a mean, hurtful thing to write I’m sure Mike hopes and B) absolves Mike of the burdensome need to either come to terms with a viewpoint with which he disagrees or rebut its ideas.

    “What disturbs the Bradley scholars is evidence that our generation is failing to educate the next one on the essentials of the American experiment.”

    What disturbs me is that someone purporting to be a scholar could miss the rich irony of teaching the tenets of freedom under force of law. Fortunately, the evidence suggests that there are lots of kids who are smart enough to realize that, far from being free, freedom’s pretty damned expensive but well worth the price.

    That’s fortunate because at least part of the malaise that afflicts the public education system results from an appreciation on the part of the kids of the irony of compulsory instruction in the importance of freedom.

  17. I’ve seen more teachers wear Che Guevara shirts, and hang up Che Guevara posters, then I’ve seen wear patriotic-themed shirts.

    Paranoid imagination? I’m just telling you what I’m seeing. You make the diagnosis, doc.

  18. “Quick, without looking, tell me the 7th amendment. It’s an outdated amendment that has little point in current society.”

    Er, tell that to the plaintiffs’ bar. The right to jury trial in civil cases (“at law,” i.e., for money damages rather than for injunctive or other equitable relief), preserved by the 7th Amendment, distinguishes the US from almost everywhere else in the world, except in some narrow causes of action in England and a few provinces of Canada. If you think it should be changed, that’s one thing, but if you think it doesn’t have any impact or relevance in the modern world, then with all due respect, you have NO idea what you’re talking about.

  19. This is exactly what I’m talking about. We can sit and discuss everything about government being important, but when it comes down to it, the 7th Amendment gets about 2 minutes in my classroom. Basically you get a jury for any civil trial over $20. Move on.

    And I’m not telling that to the plaintiff’s bar, I’m telling that to over 100 Seniors in high school.

  20. GoogleMaster says:

    When I was in high school (1978-1982), U.S. History was a junior-level class, followed by U.S. Government and Economics in senior year. Coach Brown, why are you teaching U.S. History to seniors?

    Also, being that we were in Virginia, for U.S. History we started somewhere at or before the mysterious disappearance of the Lost Colony at Roanoke Island in the 1580s. We spent a long time on the founding of our country and the establishment of its laws, leaving us little time for the 20th century. We rushed through WWII and barely made it to the Korean War, and didn’t hit Vietnam at all, despite the fact that it was practically “current events”.

    I understand that in colleges they break this into two semester-long courses: U.S. History to 1877, and U.S. History 1877-Present. Seems they could make two year-long high school courses out of it.

  21. The continued existence of civil juries has had, and continues to have, an absolutely enormous impact on this country. As a prosecutor, I certainly hope and expect most of your students will never be criminal defendants and will therefore never have to re-learn the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments through firsthand practical application. They will, however, without question, be consumers of goods and services whose prices are higher due to litigation, and unless they never drive (rather unlikely in California), be purchasers of insurance based on the risks of such litigation. The 7th Amendment’s not “sexy” but it’s nowhere near an archaic dead letter either like, say, the 3rd Amendment. And it’s not as though its consequences aren’t a subject of modern debate: tort reform is and remains a huge issue.

  22. Personally, I think that the following should be required reading in every U.S. History / U.S. Government class in high school:

    -the Declaration of Independence
    -the U.S. Constitution
    -the Constitution of whatever State you’re living in
    -a list of all the major Supreme Court cases, from Maurbury v. Madison to District of Columbia v. Heller

    Also, in the World History class, the Magna Carta, the UN Charter, and the NATO Charter should be required reading, too.

    I also think that all college students, regardless of major, should have to take U.S. History, U.S. Government, Economics, and World History classes.

    It is essential in the 21st Century that everyone understand the history of your country, its founding documents, and world history and geography. A lot of the U.S.’s and world’s problems today stem from such ignorance.

  23. Wolf, replace “list of Supreme Court cases” with The Federalist Papers.

    Ignorance is only a small part of the problem. The larger part is misinformation, and I think you’ll find an awful lot of that comes straight from the courts.

  24. Andyo, I would supplement, not replace, the case law with the Federalist Papers. Both are essential for an understanding of how US government is supposed to work and how it actually does work. And I’d assign the Anti-Federalist Papers as well, of course: the arguments made against ratification are still of more than academic historical value.


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