With the election coming up and the mainstream media focusing on trivialities and variants of "gotcha," my recurrent wish for a mandated national civics curriculum reared its head. Consider this: In 1998, 4th, 8th, and 12th graders around the country took a civics test at the behest of the U. S. Department of Education.
Students performed abysmally: A third of the high school seniors—who were or would soon be of voting age--didn't understand the basics of the American government. How many high school seniors demonstrated that they were proficient--the highest level of knowledge? One quarter of them. And only 9% percent of students could give two reasons why it is important for citizens to be involved in a democratic society.
Here's what the test was designed to assess:
Students [should] show broad knowledge of the American constitutional system and of the workings of our civil society. They [should] demonstrate a range of intellectual skills-identifying and describing important information, explaining and analyzing it, and evaluating information and defending positions with appropriate evidence and careful reasoning. (from the National Assessment of Educational Progress Civics Assessment Governing Board. Civics Framework for the 1998 National Assessment Educational Progress. US Department of Education, 1998.)
Okay, live and learn. Fast forward eight years to 2006, when 4th, 8th and 12th were administered the civics test. How'd they do? As you can see below, the fourth graders did a bit better, but there was no different between this cohort of 8th and 12th graders and those from 8 years ago.
Why might this be? Shouldn't all high school students graduate with a firm knowledge of civics? Isn't there a common core set of values all Americans should share? It is important for high school students to enter adulthood (and voting age) with a firm sense of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. It is in the country's interest for its citizens to look beyond 60 second sound bites or their "gut feeling" when deciding how to cast their vote on a referendum or for a candidate.
Here's what Center for Civic Education says about why civic education is important:
And consider this:
A free society must rely on the knowledge, skills, and virtue of its citizens and those they elect to public office. Civic education is the primary way our citizens acquire the knowledge and skills necessary for informed and engaged citizenship. While many institutions such as the family, the church and social organizations help forge a person’s civic character and propensity to participate, civic education in the schools is the one common experience American citizens share that helps them acquire and learn to use the skills, knowledge and attitudes that prepare them to be competent and responsible citizens throughout their lives. This is the historic civic mission of schools. A mission considered so important by those who established a free universal system of public education in the United States that they termed civic education as one of the central purposes of education. Unfortunately, as the indicators of civic engagement in our nation are dropping so too is the amount of time and attention devoted to civic education in our schools.
The Policy Research Project on Civic Education Policies and Practices found that on average civics content in states' social studies standards overemphasize lower-order thinking of identifying and describing positions, stating that "civic statements requiring students to evaluate, take, and defend positions-the highest-order level of thinking-are the least prevalent in most state standards." (Policy Research Project on Civic Education Policies and Practices. The Civic Education of American Youth: From State Policies to School District Practices. Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Policy Research Project Report, no. 133, 1999)
Idea #1: Bring back mandatory national civic education for students. We could even have a national test on civics (not American History per se, but on civics—rights and responsibilities of being an American citizen). We could even have a national debate about whether students must pass such a test in order to graduate high school. (There is an organization, Center for Civic Education, which is devoted to promoting civic education in the schools).
Idea #2: Consider making voting compulsory. Actually, the voting itself wouldn't be compulsory—just showing up at the polling place. This is how Australia does it (to see Eric Weiner's article about the Australian system, click here). If people had to go into the voting booth, they might just be motivated to exert the mental effort to be informed about the issues.
Even if motivated, though, the skills necessary for true citizenship—"evaluating information and defending positions with appropriate evidence and careful reasoning"—are not skills that are much on display in public discussions of politics and governance. Rather, the "political discourse" consists of sound bites, simplistic arguments designed to tug at emotions rather than reason, and to smear an opposing candidate's position or character (often falsely or by stretching the truth significantly). Is the mainstream media helping further a civics education for Americans? No.
I'd like to make a proposal (idea #3, below). First, let me explain about professional ethics and licensing for psychotherapists, which I will then use as an anology; this may seem a like digression, but it isn't.
There are many different types of psychotherapists. In fact, anyone can call him or herself a psychotherapist and hang out a shingle (so to speak). What differentiates the generic "psychotherapist" from a specialized one? The simple answer is training, and then a license. It is illegal for psychologists who evaluate or treat patients or clients to say they are psychologists—unless they have a state license. Otherwise it is "practicing without a license."
To obtain a license, a psychologist must demonstrate having received the appropriate training and experience (as determined by the state licensing board), and then take a national test plus a test on state legal and ethical matters. If the test score passes the cutoff, the psychologist is given a license. To maintain the license, the psychologist must continue learning—must obtain a specific number of continuing education credits within a specific number of years (the particular numbers vary from state to state) for each license renewal.
If a psychologist is found to have violated the state laws or ethical code that relate to professional conduct, the license can be taken away. (A license is necessary to receive health insurance payment for services, and required for certain jobs.) The licensing process is set up to protect citizens from fraud and from unethical or illegal behavior by the psychologist in his or her professional capacity.
Idea #3: License journalists. Just as psychologists are licensed, let's license journalists. For this discussion, I'm going to create a distinction between a correspondent (analogous to the generic psychotherapist—anyone can call themselves a correspondent) and a journalist (analogous to a psychologist--whose title conveys a deeper responsibility—for analysis, commentary, accuracy, integrity). The journalist is held to a higher standard, and requires more training (and should, in theory, receive more compensation). If a journalist has engaged in irresponsible reporting or analysis--according to the decision of the licensing board--his or her license could be taken away, and if so, then that individual cannot practice as a journalist. The fact that the licensing credential has been stripped becomes public knowledge. (We can use words other than correspondent and journalist—I'm using those terms to illustrate the concept of the two different types of labels for people who convey news to the public). When we see, hear, or read news through any media, we would thus be able to know whether or not the source was held to a high standard of accuracy and integrity.
What about "press passes"? Any organization giving out press passes can determine how many passes to give to correspondents versus journalists. What about freedom of the press? I'm not saying correspondents or journalists should be muzzled. I'm advocating that, as with psychologists, the public should be protected from fraud and a misuse of the professional positions of people in the press. Anyone can say or claim anything they want, but journalists—in their professional capacity—should behave with a sense of integrity and ethics.
Here's how we might develop such a system.
Step 1: Have the profession develop a national journalistic code of ethics (it has to be specific enough in most cases it's relatively clear when someone has crossed the line). As with psychology, the goal is to ensure that people who obtain a journalist license understand their rights and their legal and ethical obligations; having such a code allows the public understand those obligations and rights as well.
Step 2: Set minimum training and work experience standards for someone to be eligible to become a journalist.
Step 3: Once someone meets the minimum standards outlined in Step 2, he or she can take a test to demonstrate knowledge of the profession's rights and responsibilities (these will be based on Step 1). The cutoff score for passing is determined by the licensing board.
Step 4: Once licensed, the journalist must renew the license periodically, demonstrating continued education by earning continuing education credits (determined by the licensing board). Members of the public can bring complaints against a journalist for violating the ethical code; if the licensing board determines after a hearing that the charges have merit, the journalist's license may be revoked.
I'm not a journalist (clearly) and so this proposal may be unworkable or naive. But with the proliferation of "news" sources on the internet, in print, and on television, it seems to me that there must be some accountability and responsibility.