May 25, 2024

Too Many Know Too Little About America

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As our understanding of how representative Democracy works is eroding, citizens become less tolerant of the differences among us. Rather than envisioning paths to realize our nation’s moto, “E Pluribus Unum” – out of many one, they see threats in all who don’t live according to their beliefs.

As faith in our government is intentionally undermined, without supporting facts, the threats to the stability of our country grow.

Only through educating citizens to recognize falsehoods on the internet, in political advertising, and in conversations can we begin to rebuild faith in our representative democracy. Education about how our government works sets the foundation for good citizenship.

However, we are in increasing trouble if developing trends in Americans’ knowledge of their government continues to fall.

Every year, the Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey is published to commemorate the signing of the Constitution Sept. 17, 1787. Constitution Day is a time to reflect on the government our founders gave us and assess citizen knowledge of that gift.

This year’s study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center shows we are slipping. For the first time in six years, the survey found a drop in the percentage of those who could identify all three branches of our federal government. It found fewer people who could list the five rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. Can you name them?

“When it comes to civics, knowledge is power,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, said. “It’s troubling that so few know what rights we’re guaranteed by the First Amendment. We are unlikely to cherish, protect, and exercise rights if we don’t know that we have them.”

Freedom of speech is the most well-known First Amendment right with 63 of Americans able to name it – but that is a drop from 74 percent last year and from 73 percent in 2020.

Surprisingly, freedom of religion could only be named by 24 percent of Americans as one of their fundamental rights. That was a significant drop from 2021 when 56 percent could name it.

You would think that many Americans would know that freedom of the press is a First Amendment right. It is highlighted in movies and frequently a subject of news stories. Yet only 20 percent of the country’s citizens identified it in the survey.

The next two rights are a little more obscure but were found essential to representative democracy by our founders. The right to assemble could only be identified by 16 percent of Americans, down from 30 percent in 2021. The right to petition the government for a redress of grievances was named by just 6 percent of those surveyed.

Just over one-quarter of Americans, 26 percent, said they couldn’t name a single right. A year ago, 17 percent said they couldn’t name any of the five First Amendment rights.

Recent Supreme Court actions on gun rights, as well as congressional debates, have raised the prominence of the right to keep and bear arms. However, though 9 percent of Americans think it is a First Amendment right, it is covered under the Second Amendment.

What are our three branches of government? Legislative, executive, and judicial. We should learn this early in high school civics courses. Apparently, that education is lacking. Only 47 percent of adults surveyed by Annenberg could name all three. That is down from the abysmally low 56 percent from 2021.

Among the other questions Annenberg asked were:

Who has the final word in determining whether an executive order by the president is legal?

What happens when the Supreme Court decides 5 to 4 on an issue?

And does the First Amendment right of freedom of speech require Facebook to publish whatever we say?

It’s the Supreme Court that has the final say on the legality of executive orders, but just 46 percent of those surveyed knew this fact. When the Supreme Court rules 5 to 4, the simple majority rule makes the decision the law of the land – 55 percent got it right. Facebook is a private company. It isn’t required to publish everything we want to say, even though just over half of those surveyed think it is.

There were additional questions including those dealing with overriding a presidential veto, testifying in court, and immigration, but you already get a sense of how we as Americans do in response to these basic questions. Why is it important to have a sound civic knowledge?

Understanding how our government works provides the basis for protecting our rights while guaranteeing those of people who don’t agree with us. It is essential to hold those in power accountable. This knowledge lets us know how we go about changing laws. It also makes for a more civil conversation about our government.

In a piece she wrote on “The Role of Civic Education” in American democracy in 1998, Margaret S. Branson of the Center for Civic Education highlighted the need for a knowledgeable citizenry:

“As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the dispositions or traits of private and public character that undergird a constitutional democracy,” she wrote. “Those dispositions must be fostered and nurtured by word and study and by the power of example. Democracy is not a ‘machine that would go of itself,’ but must be consciously reproduced, one generation after another.”

 “Democracies are sustained by citizens who have the requisite knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Absent a reasoned commitment on the part of its citizens to the fundamental values and principles of democracy, a free and open society cannot succeed,” she writes.

Too many today lack the “requisite knowledge, skills, and dispositions” necessary for participation in a representative democracy. We must do a better job in our schools of teaching civics. At the same time, we must reach out to adults who need continuing education on the fundamentals of representative democracy.

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