I wonder why so many people in the present United States of America know so little about their own country. I try to explore reasons for this seeming lack of general knowledge about what it means to be a citizen in a country that is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” What has happened in nearly 250 years to bring about a population of Americans who actually believe they have no responsibility as citizens other than to vote every two or four years? And why do so many neglect to even vote?
Around 75 percent of Americans who are 18 years old or older have graduated from high school or have passed a civics test to become American citizens. High schools generally require juniors or seniors to study and take a test in American government, while people from other countries who seek U.S. citizenship must show an understanding of the way our government was designed by the forefathers. Yet, far too few Americans are able to answer a simple question about the U.S. Constitution. For instance, what are the three branches of our government? What is the function of each branch of government? Who is the head of each branch of government? Name them. What is the Bill of Rights?
If you can easily roll the answers to those questions off the tip of your tongue, you are probably ahead of half of your fellow citizens. But there is more to being a citizen of a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” We need to be informed about the present, as well.
As a retired educator, I wonder whether it is a failure of the schools that Americans have so little knowledge of our government. Or is there something about the American psyche that says the things we were taught in school do not matter once we graduate from twelfth grade? Some adults disparage both involvement and discussion of the workings of our government as ‘politics’. Whenever mention of a government activity is made in conversation, too many people will declare that they are not interested in ‘politics’. With this kind of attitude so prevalent, no wonder we have people in government who are dishonest and self-serving. Do you remember the cartoon character, Pogo, who said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us”?
Presently, regardless of laws on the books, whether the school is public, or private or home school or no school, there is no universally enforced requirement of any curriculum that teaches the U.S. Constitution and important Supreme Court decisions. In the 1960s a popular cry arose that parents should have freedom to educate their children in a school of their choice or at home. Whether the impetus of this movement was that school taxes were considered burdensome, or a sense that the government might shape the minds of children a certain way, or that some schools were not performing well, it changed the educational system across the country. The anti-public school people have been so almost a thing of the past. Without a common understanding of our country’s values, we have become so divided that even the meaning of “freedom” is controversial.
Like the school playground, we adults choose sides and refuse to consider anything that is a reflection of the opposing side. Each side does its best to limit the freedom of the opponent. If we could put aside the game of choosing sides and playing only for our side to win, we could possibly work together to solve the issues we face.
One of our politicians said recently, “America is a great country, and we need more great Americans.” We need American citizens who are steeped in the values of the founding fathers of our country and who put them in action every day.