Document saying Bill of Rights at top and amendments listed

House Judiciary Chairman Jerold Nadler, D-NY, has declared that our country is in a “constitutional crisis” as a result of the executive branch’s refusal to honor congressional subpoenas for documentation and testimony regarding the Mueller Report and other congressional investigations. He went on to say that the survival of the Republic was now at stake. Others in politics, the media, and academe have expressed concern over the erosion of democracy in the United States. If democracy in America, a seemingly successful experiment which has withstood the test of time over the past 231 years, is in jeopardy, who is at fault and what can be done to remedy the situation?

Theoretically, in a democracy, the ultimate authority lies in the hands of the people. However, you do not have to be a sociologist to know that power is not distributed equally in the United States. What the people do have is the right to advocate for policies they support and cast ballots for the president and representatives of their choice in federal, state, and local elections. In order to participate responsibly in this process, each citizen needs a knowledge base and certain cognitive skills. The most likely institution to provide this background for citizens of the United States of America is the common public school. As a matter of fact, it is the highest calling of the public school.

A 2017 survey conducted by the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 26% of the respondents could name all three branches of the government. 33% could not name any branch of government. In general, the public’s performance on the remainder of the survey indicated that Americans are poorly informed about basic Constitutional provisions.

The Census Bureau reports that 61.4% of eligible voters participated in the 2016 presidential election. It is estimated that 49% voted in the 2018 mid-term election. It appears that a good segment of the public lacks the knowledge or commitment necessary to be responsible participants in the democratic process.

However, education for citizenship is presently a low priority in America’s public schools. An emphasis on “college and career readiness” over the past decades has relegated “civics education” to a minor role in public school curricula. Although civics education curricula have been developed and are available for use, only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of U.S. Government or civics. Thirty-one states require a half-year of civics and 10 states have no civics requirement. The civics curricula emphasize knowledge over building skills for civic engagement.

If our country survives the present challenges facing democracy in the United States, we are going to have to produce a more informed and engaged citizenry for the future. We must revamp public school education to save American democracy. At a very minimum, over 13 years of education (K-12), students must garner a deep understanding of the United States’ founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Applying the standards and practices emerging from these documents should be an ongoing, skill building exercise throughout the school years. Adapting these standards and practices to contemporary conditions would be part of this endeavor. Necessary skills for today’s society include a collaborative, evidence based method of science approach to problem solving and decision-making and the ability to recognize propaganda and fallacies in argument.

Criterion values used to inform a K-12 citizenship education curriculum might include: commitment to the Constitutional guarantees of thought, belief, speech, and the press; an equal opportunity for all to participate in the decision making process; and an emphasis on the cognitive skills needed to participate fully and responsibly in all phases of democratic citizenship. Critical intelligence should be given free play in solving problems. Opinion and the free expression of ideas should be held to the tests of evidence and reason. Consensus and willingness to abide by mutually agreed upon rules are hallmarks of democracy.

Our nation’s founders have bequeathed to us an elegant system of ideas for self-governance. It’s up to our public schools to produce an American citizenry worthy of the inheritance.

David E. Washburn is a retired professor of the social foundations of education.