Guest Editorials, Opinion

Democracy dies when kids don’t know history, civics

The National Assessment of Educational Progress civics test scores for eighth graders for the first time have registered a decline while history scores continued their steep decline. The results for the nation’s report card are abysmal and present a major warning sign for the future regarding the ability of young people to grasp the events that shaped America and how the nation’s democratic institutions function. The lower that understanding, the higher the chances of young people being manipulated by social media and falling victim to political liars and scammers. 

Girls performed worse than boys. Whites had steeper declines than blacks and Hispanics. Charter school students performed far worse than students in traditional public schools, while Catholic school students’ performance was flat. Parental education levels appeared to influence their children’s performance.  

So what does it mean when only 22% of eighth graders scored at or above basic proficiency levels for civics? It means that more than three-quarters of students don’t have the intellectual tools to understand the functions of government, legislatures and the judiciary — or why it’s important. They might not understand the Constitution and how the Bill of Rights outlines their freedoms and the boundaries of those freedoms. 

When ignorance of such basics prevails at the same time kids are more focused than ever on their smartphones and social media, their vulnerability to manipulation by nefarious individuals grows astronomically. Think Steve Bannon hawking lies about the 2020 presidential election being stolen, or Alex Jones claiming that a school mass shooting was a hoax and grieving parents were just actors. The mass manipulation of today’s adults is bad enough, so imagine the possibilities when the next, horrendously ill-prepared generation comes of voting age. 

The steeper national performance decline was in U.S. history, where only 14% of students scored at or above proficient. With so many issues lately coming to bear on the public’s historical understanding, the nation cannot afford to have a new generation immersed in nonsense presented as fact. Politicians and conservative networks are working overtime to convince parents that children should not be taught the full, unvarnished history of slavery and how it continues to impact the Black experience today. Students need to know the historical foundations of the First Amendment, and why the separation of church and state is essential. Or why it’s necessary to defend and protect press freedoms. 

Since today’s students are reading less — and testing lower on reading abilities — the chances grow ever slimmer of them sitting down to read a newspaper or knowing how to distinguish between a credible news source and a bogus one. 

Civics and history are the foundations of an informed and engaged public. And the signs are unmistakable that those foundations are crumbling. 

This editorial first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.