How much do Americans know about government or the nation’s founding principles? Not nearly enough. A recent poll from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, querying 1,104 adults, found just two in five could name all three branches of government; 22% couldn’t name one. Earlier Annenberg polling found 37% of Americans couldn’t identify any First Amendment rights. Students are similarly uninformed: The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress data show less than a third of fourth-, eighth-, and 12th–graders were proficient in civics.
Such numbers reveal a worrisome lack of knowledge about foundational American ideas, freedoms, documents, and structures. Ignorance is especially concerning in a digital and politically fraught culture, pulsing with information and innuendo, fact and fiction.
What helps winnow wheat from chaff? Civic knowledge.
In his year-end report on the federal judiciary, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts lamented the decline of civics education, noting, “In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.”
Will civics education be revitalized in North Carolina? It’s early to say, but changes are coming. The Department of Public Instruction is revising K-12 social studies standards. Legislation, enacted in 2019, will require high schoolers to take two new social studies classes: a personal finance course, and a reimagined civic literacy class covering founding principles.
The law caps required high school social studies courses at “no more than four,” so students will take one American history course instead of two, a change the State Board of Education approved in January. Will American history be shortchanged? I hope not. Educators have voiced concerns. In a recent press release, State Superintendent Mark Johnson sought to relieve fears, promising, “…Not only will we keep all America(n) history standards, we will improve our efforts to teach the founding principles of our nation.”
DPI is soliciting additional public comment on social studies standards later this spring, so stay tuned. Outside the classroom, would-be constitutional scholars can build knowledge by participating in North Carolina’s first-ever Constitution Bee. Set for May, the Bee is open to public, private, and homeschool students in grades eight through 12.
Created by Michael Leahy, owner of Star News Digital Media and CEO of Star News Education Foundation, the Bee first launched in Tennessee in 2017. This spring, seven states will host bees; an “at-large” bee is open to students in states without a bee.
A constitutional guide, authored by Leahy, forms the basis for the Bee’s questions. It’s written from the perspective of “originalism,” a legal philosophy of interpreting the Constitution “by determining what its language meant to the people who originally ratified it,” notes the Bill of Rights Institute. That view offers a refreshing balance and counterpoint to the notion of a “living,” evolving Constitution — and the progressivism that can pervade classroom teaching on this topic.
The Bee, Leahy says, is an outgrowth of his “personal commitment and interest in civic literacy.” Civics education is often lacking, he notes, with impacts on the future electorate; today’s students are tomorrow’s voters. “The idea,” he says, “was to get them engaged and provide opportunities for college scholarships.”
Kids, take note: Top-three finishers at state bees win scholarships, advancing to the National Bee in Washington, D.C. There, top-three finishers earn scholarships; the champion wins $25,000.
Engaging youth and incentivizing civic literacy? It’s a winning combination for the information age, helping to make the mind a threshing sledge — sharp enough to winnow wheat from chaff, fact from fiction.
Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.