Students Do Not Have Access to Quality Civics Education and It Is Harming Our Status as a Democracy

The United States was recently downgraded by economists from a “full” democracy to a “flawed” democracy. The Democracy Index measures where different nations fall on a scale of governmental operations, ranging from all-out dictatorships to complete democracies. The Index analyzes freedoms and political rights within a particular country and uses that data to determine the type of government that best classifies that nation.

The War on Public Education Destroys Democracy

Why would the United States have recently been demoted to a flawed, rather than a full, democracy? There are many answers to that question. One important causal factor is the simple fact that our citizens are becoming less-informed, less-inquisitive, and less-involved in the system of government. As a nation, we have very little understanding of the rule of law and how our democratic society should operate. This is a direct result of the crumbling institution of public education.

Public schools once embraced courses that taught young students about the American system of government, their civic duties and responsibilities, and foundational American laws. These courses helped to prepare students to become engaged, inquisitive members of a democratic society. Students not only learned about what a democracy should look like, but also came to understand their role in the system.

Decline of Civic Knowledge

In recent years, however, the number of schools to offer courses that offer these vital lessons have declined rapidly  As a result, today’s society collectively knows very little about our government. Here are some horrific takeaways from a recent survey of Americans by the University of Pennsylvania:

    • Three-quarters of Americans cannot name all three branches of the Federal government.
    • One-third of Americans cannot identify a single branch of the Federal government.
    • More than one-half of the population does not know, or cannot properly articulate, which branch of government can declare war.

The University of Pennsylvania has been conducting this survey for years. Each year, the results show that Americans know less and less about our system of government, rules of law, and the Constitution.

Since our collective knowledge about our government and law is declining, we cannot be thoughtful, informed, and meaningful participants in our democratic society. As a result, our democracy is no longer working as our Founding Fathers intended. How can our elected officials represent our desires and needs if we cannot and do not articulate what we want?

Our elected officials no longer represent us because it is easy to deceive a constituency that isn’t informed about policy and important issues.

How to Restore a Full Democracy

How can we fix our country and work toward reclaiming the status of a full democratic nation?

Restoring Informative Courses in Public Schools

The first priority should be in fixing our public school agendas and curricula. We must introduce the idea of democracy to our students at a young age and teach them about the laws that impact them each and every day of their lives. We must teach our students that, as members of a democratic society, they have the power to influence legislation and fight for laws that they believe to be in their best interest.

Encouraging Students to Study the Law

The second priority should be encouraging students to harness their distress with and distrust of our government in a positive way. More young people are becoming vocal about political issues on social media. They are unhappy with how things are going in the country and using their social media platforms as a voice for their discontent.

Unfortunately, social media can often devolve into dehumanizing and endless loops of arguments with those whose opinions differ from ours. Many times, these arguments lack the substance and foundation that are necessary to be meaningful and evoke change. Encouraging our youth to become learned in the law can be a tremendous tool in allowing these arguments to evolve.

Students and advocates can begin by petitioning to have law and ethics courses introduced in their local school districts. These courses can be instrumental in giving students a crash-course on democracy, law, and policy. If students are particularly interested in continuing this education, they should be encouraged to choose post-secondary courses that expand on these issues. This can include study in the fields of criminal justice, government, public policy, and even the law.

According to Sherwin Arzani, an attorney and legal scholar, studying these topics in depth, particularly in a law school setting, can help to develop analytical and critical thinking skills that are not limited to the practice of law.

“Studying the law gives you the tools you need to argue and debate effectively,” Arzani explains. “Arguments are not just limited to the legal practice; public debate would be much more effective for evoking change if we, as a society, knew how to do it properly.”

Fighting to Restore Our Democratic Nation Through Education

A well-educated population is essential to a full democracy. Our democracy will continue to crumble if we do not provide our youth with the tools that are necessary to become active and engaged participants in society. These tools can be provided by (a) re-introducing civics courses in our elementary schools and (b) encouraging the pursuit of knowledge through the study of law.

We must continue to embrace and support policies that foster education in America. If we do not, we will continue to slide down the Democracy Index and become a nation that is unrecognizable.

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