| August 2, 2010

(Not) Making the Grade

So many things divide Americans these days that it may be naïve to assume there are still some things—maybe even quite a few things—that most of us agree on.

Noah Webster, writing in “On the Education of Youth in America” (1788), declared: “Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country.”

I taught history, then sociology, at Oklahoma State University for four years in the late 1970s. A quarter-century later I taught a little bit of everything, but primarily civics, at an alternative school in east Oklahoma City.

As a teacher, I was stunned and a bit frightened by the lack of knowledge about American systems and traditions the typical student brought into my classroom. It’s a source of some pride that they left me after a semester knowing more than when they crossed the threshold the first day of school.

Things haven’t changed since then, and I suspect they may be worse.

A new survey by SoonerPoll has found that more than four out of ten Oklahoma high school graduates flunk a test of basic knowledge about American government.

The substantive questions for the survey, commissioned by OCPA, are identical to those on the naturalization test that all non-native-born residents of the United States must take as one of their last steps before attaining the gift of American citizenship. The 10 open-ended questions are fairly straightforward (see facing page).

As USA Today might put it, “Forty-two percent of us failed.” Or, how’s this: “Fifty-eight percent of us made a D or an F on the test that foreigners must pass to become Americans.”

Here are some particulars. Only 11 percent of us can name two of the three rights specified in the Declaration of Independence (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). Only 42 percent can name capitalism (or a rough equivalent, such as “market economy” or “free enterprise system”) as the type of economic system that prevails in the U.S.

Two-thirds are unable to specify the length of terms for members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Bright spots are few, but here goes: Nearly 90 percent know why there are 13 stripes on the American flag, around three-fourths know that General Eisenhower fought in World War II and that the president is commander-in-chief of the military.

Enough sweetness and light: In all, 58 percent made a D or F on the citizenship test. Eighteen percent made a C (70 percent correct), 14 percent made a B, and only 10 percent made an A. One percent of those polled answered all 10 questions correctly.

The sample size was huge. SoonerPoll reached 1,014 households. The margin of error for a sample this large rests at about three percent. The universe is Oklahoma voters, screened for registration within the state and for having attended high school in Oklahoma. All demographic groups were represented. And here’s a kicker: In the process of quantifying who they polled, SoonerPoll’s analysis indicates that all 1,014 respondents would be considered likely voters, with 86 percent of them considered very likely. That means they’re the sort of folks who care enough to show up in primaries and runoffs, let alone general elections.

In short, these are good citizens.

University of Oklahoma President David Boren had this to say about the new SoonerPoll: “These poll results are truly alarming. I strongly agree with historian David McCullough who said that a nation cannot remain great unless it knows how it became great in the first place. We must know both our history and how our government works. If we do not understand our political system, including our Constitutional rights, we will fail as U.S. citizens to preserve our freedom.

“At OU we require both history and American Government courses to be eligible for graduation. We have just established a new institute to teach America’s Constitutional history. I believe so strongly in the need to educate our students about citizenship that I have taught the freshman American Government course for 31 semesters.”

Incidentally, the institute President Boren referenced is run by Dr. Kyle Harper, a newly minted Harvard historian who, as it happens, was one of OCPA’s first interns. He is now an OCPA adjunct scholar.

I’ve been doing a fair share of pondering about this “civics” thing for most of my career, but more so since Boren’s notable speech at the state Capitol six months ago, wherein he described as “scandalous and shocking” the lack of understanding about American politics, government, and history among college graduates, including many of the top achievers.

That began a productive exchange with Mr. Troy, which I concluded by remarking, “What worries me is that if we don’t share certain premises and points of reference, how can we even argue productively about possible solutions in public policy?” Troy replied, “That’s exactly the point.”

The earth did not shift on its axis at that moment of accord, but I have to think that somewhere, James Madison smiled.

In a lengthy interview for CapitolBeatOK after leaving the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on June 30, Oklahoma City University President Robert H. Henry reflected on several matters of public policy, including weaknesses in contemporary civics education.

While particular points he made were different from those raised in Boren’s Capitol speech and in our interview, it is clear the two men share insights into the essential nature of an informed citizenry for the workings of a free society.

Henry said, “I am a passionate believer in the liberal arts; and a defender of our system with its Greek and Roman roots, and of course a Jewish overlay. I believe that if people want to be free, they have to learn some things. People must be challenged if we are to retain and build on the freedoms and the system we have.”

Responding to questions about the lack of interest—even overt hostility in some cases—to political reporting and commentary, Henry told me, “I often ask students if they’re interested in politics. Most of them say no. So, I ask them what it is, what politics is about. They say they don’t know. If they do answer, many talk about scandals or problems.”

Henry continued, “I give them a scholarly definition like David Easton’s, which is that politics is the authoritative allocation of values. Or, I’ll throw out Harold Lasswell’s definition, which is that politics decides who gets what, where, when, how, and why.”

That sketch of what politics is about echoes the essentials of good news reporting, which seeks to discover the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of current events.

Beyond civic virtue and the ethic of public service, Henry commented as follows: “In some ways, politics is the way we decide who gets ‘stuff.’ So I say to the students, to pique their interest, if you don’t want ‘stuff,’ don’t get involved in politics. If you want ‘stuff,’ then you have to play this game. What I’m really saying is that you don’t participate in politics at your own great peril.”

So, it would seem, for our culture: we neglect at our own great peril imparting to the next generation fundamental elements of the glorious patrimony of liberty that is ours.

Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is editor of

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