Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Rights of citizenship should require more effort than doing nothing

What should Americans know about America?

More than they do, that’s for sure.

A couple of weeks ago the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute released results of a civics survey it conducted of state high school students, drawing questions from the citizenship test the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers to prospective Americans.

Nine out of 10 failed.

The results shouldn’t be surprising. Their parents don’t know much about America either, according to a 2008 report by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

The institute surveyed adults using a similar test of American history and civic institutions. Of 2,500 people surveyed, 71 percent failed and another 18 percent barely passed.

So the Goldwater report shows that the apples aren’t falling very far from the civics ignorance tree.

But is it vital to American democracy that everyone knows Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence (which 7 out of 10 state high school students didn’t)? Or that the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of an official religion (which 7 out of 10 adults didn’t)?

Of course.

Democracy requires an informed and engaged electorate. Ignorant people are easily fooled and misled.

If you don’t know what the U.S. Supreme Court is supposed to do then you don’t know why the debate over the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor is so important.

If you don’t know why Jefferson held those truths of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to be self evident, then you’ll never understand that they’re the bedrock principles of freedom upon which this nation was founded.

Whom should we blame for this civic illiteracy? The cop out answer is our schools.

The Goldwater Institute suggests high school students be required to pass a civics test to graduate and that passing a civics test be a requirement for admission to a state university.

Noble ideas but they might not go far enough to drive home the importance of knowing what it means to be an American.

The problem is not that these subjects aren’t taught in the schools. They are. It’s that the students don’t learn them.

They learn enough to pass a class test, to be sure, but they don’t retain it for very long because, kind of like using algebra, it’s rarely asked of them again.

It takes no effort to be an American.

Immigrants aside, there’s no test to become an American, you just need to survive birth. The only requirement for voting is that you have had 18 birthdays and you fill out a registration form. And even then you don’t have to vote.

In our quest to be completely and equally free we’ve freed ourselves from any requirement to know or understand why we’re free in the first place.

If Americans never have do anything to be an American, then it’s no wonder most of them don’t know what it means to be an American.

If we want civics to matter than we need to bring back civic service. Perhaps we should require young people perform two years of civil or military service before they get to legally become adults. And if they don’t want to perform public service, then they can become adults at 23 but have to pay 5 percent more in income taxes every year for five years as a freeloader penalty.

Then maybe those ignorant high school students will smarten up and remember for the rest of their lives who was the first president of the United States (which nearly 7 out of 10 didn’t).

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