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The U.S. is losing its civics education — here’s how to turn it around

A member at the U.S. National Guard from New Jersey, looks at the painting Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull on display in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Thursday, April 29, 2021.
AP

There is a difference between uninformed, misinformed and disinformed. One demonstrates a lack of knowledge; one may be innocent but inaccurate; and one is divisive, dangerous and intentional. None are ideal or sustainable in a nation that expects to preserve self-government. And all are finding their way into public education.

Regardless of the level of intentionality associated with it, voices from the past and present — including those who created our very form of government — have warned us that the survival of self-governance depends upon informed, engaged and educated citizens.

Current events offer examples of how information gaps play out in real time: elected officials demonstrating pandemic-related confusion over state and federal authority; members of Congress acting without an understanding of the Constitution they are sworn to defend; and citizens marching on our nation’s Capitol with an unconstitutional goal. Each incident tells us that if the evening news is in fact history’s first rough draft, then the history we’re writing today is lacking in knowledge, proper citizenship and context.

We can no longer avoid this harsh truth: Despite the high value we place on education, we have allowed an atrophy to occur. We have ignored the gradual reduction of history and civics and accepted the erosion of content and context — and consequently, truth that enables leadership. This lack of accurate information leaves current and future generations unacceptably vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation.

In quieter times, we may have mused over the gravity of data points that prove our citizenry is uninformed. For example, 32% of Americans cannot identify the Supreme Court as one of the three branches of government. But we should be even more concerned when disinformation has convinced 25% of Americans that the concept of checks and balances allows for eliminating the Supreme Court if it makes too many decisions that are opposed by most Americans.

These consequential gaps in knowledge and understanding strike at the heart of how self-government works. We must make the connection between our loss of civics education and our current state of well-being.

At the beginning of this year, 7 in 10 Americans said that the country is on the wrong track. That sounds like a consensus.

The challenge is — thanks to being either uninformed or disinformed — that we all view the same division and dysfunction, but we do not all see the same wrongs, and therefore we cannot see the same opportunities for change.

In other words, we are realizing the consequences of a lost common baseline of the knowledge needed for citizenship. The losses include even our once-shared American vocabulary around terms such as freedom, civics, equity and democracy. Today, such words represent vast ideological divides.

And part of the reason we see so much division, bitter partisan politics, and increasing violence in this nation has to do with the fact that we hardly study or teach how freedom and self-governance work. This bygone prioritization of history and civics has reduced our collective understanding of the institutions, behaviors and conditions that have kept us freer than any other nation for nearly 250 years.

The good news is we can solve the problem. We can change course.

Just as we did with STEM education, we can reprioritize history and civics.

It requires a groundswell of parents who seek the teaching of nonpoliticized facts and truths about our people and our history. It demands an understanding of our successes and failures, why our form of government is different — and how it is designed to work.

It calls for an insistence that in our efforts to highlight and overcome the past mistakes of our republic, we will not deny the rising generation the best of their American inheritance.

It is an agreement that their future is not benefited by robbing them of the context, perspective, struggles, even a sense of gratitude for our freedoms, that could inspire and inform their ability to lead in the future — and truly right past wrongs.

It is a respect for context, for examining current problems in their proper historical context.

And finally, it’s a return to the needed reprioritization of this type of honest study and critical thinking that can facilitate these objectives.

So, what do we do?

First, technology affords every family the ability to educate in their own homes and choose the curriculum that supports their values.

Second, we can suspend the division when it comes to citizenship and agree to an inclusive approach to civics that will accurately present the past — and place contemporary theories in their appropriate context.

Third, it is time for a local, grassroots approach. Utahns must become more involved in what schools teach. Now is the time to begin your own education as to how local curriculum decisions are made and who represents you.

A trusted friend from out of state recently said to me, “If you can’t do this in Utah, it can’t be done anywhere” — and after a pause added, “And if you can do this in Utah, you can do it anywhere.”

Let’s prove that concept — and share our success.

Rick B. Larsen is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.