ETS recently released a report about the lack of civic engagement of the American child. (Click to watch the video here.)
It asks the question: despite the fact that history is a core subject in most schools, why are only 25% of students proficient in civic knowledge? Apparently, only 24% of 4th graders know why we have a Constitution and 22% of 8th graders know what the Supreme Court does.
These certainly are alarming statistics. It is ironic that ETS, which stands for Educational Testing Services, is bemoaning the decline of civic engagement. While ETS is not nearly as objectionable as Pearson or Wireless Generation, it could be argued that the entire regime of standardized testing that ETS represents has helped along the disenfranchisement of the American citizen. The narrowing of the curriculum to which testing lends itself enables subjects like history, which should be studied and assessed as whole cloth, to be chopped up into isolated bits of trivia. This testing regime goes part of the way towards explaining why children lack civic knowledge
The narrowing that we see today threatens to do away with history as a subject altogether. One of the bromides of education reform is that schools need to prepare students for the 21st century economy, which promises to be a highly technological affair. This means stressing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. ETS is rightfully concerned about the health of American democracy. Yet, the education reformers of today are more concerned with keeping the United States economically competitive. They have shown little regard for activating the American people as citizens. Rather, they are single-mindedly obsessed with activating the American people as the low-paid technological workforce of the future.
Part of this is nothing new. There was a wave of science and math education after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. Our leaders believed the Russians were beating us technologically during the Cold War. Not to be outdone, President Kennedy promised to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s by riding a spate of investment in STEM education.
There was a major difference between that wave of STEM and the current wave. When the first people landed on the moon, they planted an American flag because it was the culmination of a civic exercise. The resources of an entire nation had been working towards that moment. It may have been “one giant leap for mankind”, but there was no doubt who out of mankind’s representatives took the credit for that leap: those that lived under the Stars and Stripes. In short, we invested in STEM as a civic exercise.
Today, the justification for STEM education is naked economic interest. We must be able to keep up with our global competitors not as a matter of civic pride, but because we are in danger of losing our spot in the marketplace. There is no talk anymore of producing the next generation of astronauts. Astronauts were intergalactic conquistadors working in the service of a country; a country that was advancing knowledge for all mankind. Today, we tell kids to study STEM because the economy of tomorrow demands it. There is no purpose other than the profit motive.
History and civics were necessary to produce astronauts. Even if the version of America that children learned was sanitized, at least there was the idea that America was worth knowing. People had to have an idea of what that flag on the moon represented.
On the other hand, history and civics is irrelevant in the global marketplace. Business today knows no borders. Products, capital and labor cross national boundaries with ease. In fact, allowing future generations to imbibe the lessons of freedom and justice that come with any sanitized reading of American history might make the low-paid functionaries of tomorrow less than compliant. There is no place for civics in the current Neoliberal regime of education reform. The only subjects worthy of study are the equations and formulas of STEM. The only way to measure learning is the bloodless data of high-stakes testing. The only purpose behind this effort is cold economic calculation.
So, while history is still a core subject in most American schools, it is a subject that is devalued in the sterilized world of education reform.
This leads us to other reasons why the civic spirit is lacking in American children. While it is a cause for concern that less than a third of schoolchildren know about the Constitution or the Supreme Court, it is safe to say that the proportion of adults who know these things is not much higher.
To a great extent, the United States has always been an anti-intellectual place. On the other hand, the era in which we currently live marries good old American anti-intellectualism to widespread Gen X apathy.
Since the 1970s, it has become the norm for voter turnout to hover around 50% even for presidential elections. Congressional and local races are generally much lower. A change happened during that nervous decade. The Pentagon Papers, Watergate and the increasing vulgarity of popular culture gave rise to widespread cynicism among the electorate. All leaders were bums. All politicians were the same. It did not matter which politician’s slop the electorate eats up, for it all winds up the same flavor in the end.
To a great extent, the cynicism in the electorate gets at something real. No matter how well-liked a politician is, there is always the understanding that we are being gamed. Bill Clinton left office with high approval ratings, yet by that time he had already proven to be a philanderer who had committed perjury. His moniker of “Slick Willie” was almost an endearing term. He was the slimy politician that Americans loved to love.
Contrast the benign “Slick Willie” to Richard Nixon’s dark nickname of “Tricky Dick”. By the time he left office, “Tricky Dick” was a term of derision. Nixon was the slimy politician that Americans loved to hate. This is because “Tricky Dick” came from a generation of American citizens who expected more out of their government than they do now. Many people may not have voted for the POTUS, but he was still everyone’s POTUS and deserved respect. People had faith in their government. They were civically engaged.
So America’s children can be forgiven if they do not know about the Constitution or the Supreme Court. Adults tend to only know these things as broken promises. The most enlightened among the electorate know them as noble experiments of a genteel age that have been betrayed by a generation of self-seekers and social climbers. It is not that American adults are ignorant of these things; it is that they have an instinctive mistrust of what they have become.
Is it any wonder that America’s children, who can pick up so readily on the unspoken assumptions of the adults around them, betray the same lack of civic spirit the electorate as a whole demonstrates?
How can we revive the civic spirit? It will not come with more high-stakes tests, even if those tests are in civics. It will not come with new curriculum or new project-based methods of teaching civics. It will not come with making American history and government a double period class in the fashion that math and science have labs.
No, reviving the civic spirit in children will only be possible once it is revived in the adults. There used to be a time when the government exercised its power of public domain over the television airwaves to cover issues of public moment. There used to be a time when the reporters actually investigated instead of accepting the words of politicians and business leaders at face value. There was a time when Americans tuned in to see their astronauts launch into outer space.
Today, all we have on the television is Snookie’s pregnancy or the Kardashians’ bad hair day. All we have in the papers is partisan yellow journalism.
There was a time when a person (albeit, usually a white man) would be able to work for the same corporation for 30 years and then live off a decent pension in old age, supplemented by Social Security. There was a time when Americans felt as if they were getting ahead, before the age of credit cards and debt slavery. There was a time when, with government help, parents would be able to put their kids through college to get the education that was going to improve the life of the next generation.
Today, Americans move from one low-paying job to another. Creditors call their houses seven days a week to remind them of how behind they really are. A college education is no longer the magic bullet for intergenerational progress.
All the while, politicians are telling everyone that things are fine. The economy is always improving, or always on the verge of improving. The Dow Jones is up. Business leaders see bright days ahead if we just give them another tax cut and tighten our belts a little bit longer.
Americans have lost stock in America. Our children sense this and know better than to put any stock in it in the first place.