In Our View: Embrace Civics Lessons

To protect Constitutional rights, citizens must first understand them

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The definition of civics, according to Merriam-Webster, is fairly straightforward: “A social science dealing with the rights and duties of citizens.”

Yet while a strong knowledge of civics is a necessary building block for making America great, we are continually disappointed by citizens’ lack of knowledge about their country. Consider some results from the annual Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, which was released last month:

• More than half of Americans (53 percent) incorrectly believe that undocumented immigrants do not have any rights under the U.S. Constitution.

• Only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government.

• And more than one-third of respondents cannot name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. (For the record, the First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.)

Add in the fact that — according to The New York Times — nearly half of Americans did not know that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and it is clear that this nation is suffering from a dangerous knowledge deficit. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are.”

In Washington, efforts are underway to boost that knowledge. Legislative bills were introduced in both chambers last year — Senate Bill 5668 and House Bill 1896 — to boost civics education throughout the state, including training for teachers. The bills have yet to make it out of committee, but deserve consideration during the 2018 session.

Meanwhile, other programs are being used to help citizens understand our system of government. The state’s public-affairs network promotes a “Teach with TVW” project, providing hands-on education; the Council of Public Legal Education has launched a Civic Learning Initiative to provide access to civics instruction; and the office of Secretary of State Kim Wyman promotes a “Legacy Washington” program to boost knowledge of the state’s history. Plus, we should mention that newspapers provide daily insight into how our government works.

Like most states, Washington has focused recent educational efforts upon STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math). These are, indeed, essential in preparing students to be productive workers in the economy of the future, but a lack of civics education is quickly undermining the pillars of the United States.

There is an ideology known as American exceptionalism that suggests this nation is unique, that our system and the manner in which it was founded makes attainable the apex of human achievement. It is a noble sentiment, yet one that requires a deep understanding of that system in order for such exceptionalism to continue. Instead, we are falling into a cavern of misunderstanding and disinterest.

Fewer and fewer people can be bothered to vote in each election cycle, and fewer and fewer people can hold a rational political discussion beyond the talking points they read on the internet. These observations point out the need for improved civics education.

Because while the definition of civics might be simple, understanding it can be complex.