What does being a good citizen require?
According to a new report issued by the Department of Education, Secretary Arne Duncan wants to reboot civic education and upgrade it for the twenty-first century. The future of democracy depends on it, he argues. But the key to improving civic education today is not to make it more like a video game or a summer camp, as Duncan wants to do. It's to equip students with the tools to sort out the political life unfolding around them. The problem today is not merely that students don't "know enough" facts. It's that they lack the basis for forming and holding opinions. And without opinions—ultimately, opinions about the common good—politics will always seem a distant chore best left to others.
Good citizens do things: they speak out, they vote, they volunteer, they organize. But to do those things well, citizens need to know things. Civic action requires civic knowledge.
This might seem so elemental as to need no defense. After all, an ignorant citizenry is easily manipulated by propaganda and the seductions of flattering and over-promising politicians. Only when citizens are knowledgeable are they empowered to resist the self-serving machinations of ambitious elites and act in their own interests. Only a knowledgeable citizenry can preserve its freedoms.
This is why the persistent evidence of citizen ignorance is so hair-raising. Surveys show that almost half of Americans, for instance, think the phrase, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” appears in the United States Constitution (actually, it is from The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels). Speaking of Communists, almost half of Americans believe that Communist Party members cannot run for president. Three-quarters of the population think the Constitution guarantees a high school education.