America's civics crisis means too many students don't even know the Declaration of Independence

If civics is the what of American political life, history is the why

Only 60 percent of American 8th graders have a basic understanding of U.S. history, according to the new Nation’s Report Card scores recently released, and only 13 percent of them are proficient in the subject. Roughly three in every ten of them lack a basic understanding of civics.

In context, this means that much of the rising generation likely doesn’t know who wrote the Declaration of Independence or why the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution. They cannot tell you the reasons each side fought the Civil War or in which war the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. They don’t know about Congressional veto power or how the Electoral College works. (All of these examples are pulled from sample Nation’s Report Card questions.)

These students, who are now high school freshmen, are four years away from being voters; maybe less if certain politicians succeed in lowering the voting age. We face the very real possibility of our future presidents and members of Congress being elected by people who have no idea what those jobs entail.

These students deserve to participate in the civic life of this country, but they are being robbed of the tools that would let them do so in a constructive way. The problems extend beyond the ballot box: Our entire political discourse, both in the news media and in our own neighborhoods, will be swayed by people with no understanding of the American system of governance.


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This is not to say that our political discourse is particularly well-informed at this moment: Only 47 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government, according to a survey conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. The same study found that 26 percent could not name a single freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. In 2018, the Nation’s Report Card showed that 34 percent of 8th graders scored "below basic" in U.S. History, which is to say they were historically illiterate. 27 percent scored "below basic" in civics that same year.

When people don’t understand the separation of powers, they don’t know that Supreme Court justices are supposed to decide if a law is Constitutional and not just if they think it’s a good idea. They don’t know that federal spending is supposed to originate in the House, and they don’t know the limits of Presidential power. When people don’t understand that federalism helps ensure freedom, liberty, and opportunity, they are more willing to hand power to Washington that rightfully belongs to the states.

An empty classroom with the chairs up.

An empty classroom with the chairs up. (Peter Kneffel/picture alliance )

Teacher unions and the institutional left have managed an astonishing feat of bureaucratic gymnastics: They brought politics into the classroom without civics or history. Sec. Miguel Cardona attributes these terrible test scores, wrongly, to the pandemic and politics in the classroom. The first part of his assessment is an outright lie: The pandemic never precluded anyone from teaching history, but union-led school closures sure did. The second part is correct, though Cardona’s own allies are to blame: Indoctrination in the forms of DEI, Critical Race Theory, and gender identity politics have crowded out fact-based education about the country we all share. Teachers are terrified to teach what makes America great and are instead encouraged to teach a version of history so warped by progressive politics that it can hardly be called history at all.It’s time to flip that paradigm on its head and get the politics out while bringing the core subjects back in.


If civics is the what of American political life, history is the why. Without an understanding of this country underpinned by principles of liberty, any understanding of civics is superficial at best. There are ways to correct these educational deficiencies, but doing so will be a team effort between parents, educators, and lawmakers

Every governor and state superintendent should immediately set high standards for teaching civics, history, and how the two connect. These standards must be based on students’ understanding of facts and principles. Any standard that measures students on their understanding of DEI, Critical Race Theory, or gender identity politics is not a measure of education but one of indoctrination. States must wring the wokeness out of their standards and thus out of their curricula. Every school board and district leader should, in close concert with parents and teachers, figure out the best way to bring students to meet these new and improved standards of learning.

Parents, yet again, must step up where schools have failed. The responsibility to raise good citizens will always lie with America’s moms and dads. They can outsource that task to schools, but they can never abdicate it. This fastest and best fix for this problem, like so many others, will happen around millions of kitchen tables.

As President Ronald Reagan said, "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." We owe it to the next generation to teach them how to be thoughtful, productive, and informed citizens, so that they can write the next chapter of the great American story. 

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