Advancing a Free Society

American Amnesia

Friday, July 1, 2011

The New York Times headline from May could not have been more compelling: "Failing grades on civics exam called a 'crisis.'" The accompanying story reported bleak news from the latest National Assessment of Student Progress (widely known as the "nation's report card"). Among our present crop of high school seniors, only one in four scored at least "proficient" in knowledge of U. S. citizenship. Of all the academic subjects tested, civics and the closely linked subject of history came in last: "a smaller proportion of fourth and eighth graders demonstrated proficiency in civics than in any other subject the federal government has tested since 2005, except history, American students' worst subject."

Not surprisingly, the story drew appalled reactions from public figures such as Sandra Day O'Conner ("we have a crisis on our hands"). Charles Quigley, a civics educator, noted that "the results confirm an alarming and continuing trend that civics in America is on the decline." He declared that in the U.S. today, "civic education is facing a real 'civic recession.'" Yet within a week, despite the perception of crisis among those who were paying attention, the story vanished from sight. This may be the most alarming part of the crisis—our society's seeming lack of awareness of the grave threat that civic ignorance among our youth poses to the future of our democracy.

Continue reading William Damon in Defining Ideas