Will Civics Education Make People Better Voters?

It's making a comeback in public schools. But to really make voters more informed, the curriculum could use an overhaul.
September 2016
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

David Broder, who died in 2011, was arguably the most admired political reporter of his generation, especially among his journalistic peers. He combined excellent judgment, unflagging energy and a fundamental decency that nobody who knew him could miss. I was a member of the fan club myself.

But one element of Broder’s persona always puzzled me: He had an unshakable belief in the ultimate wisdom of the American electorate. “The voters,” he often said, “are way ahead of the politicians.” In the heat of an election season, while other reporters were trading gossip with consultants and campaign managers, Broder would trudge down the residential streets of obscure American towns, knocking on doors and asking ordinary citizens for their opinions. He always emerged from these forays with his populist sympathies intact.

I was impressed by this effort, but I never really understood it. The wisdom that Broder saw in the average voter didn’t seem so obvious to me. From what I saw, most Americans scarcely knew anything about the candidates for major office, and even less about what these candidates proposed to do if elected. Every year, reputable surveys reinforced this sobering judgment. Voters were for the most part ill-informed. Not stupid, but factually challenged when it came to the basics of public policy and the political process.

Broder and his fellow optimists came up with arguments to counter this gloomy appraisal. There was, for example, the idea of “retrospective voting.” Citizens might not know much about candidates’ plans, but they knew how things were going in their lives and in their communities, and they chose on that basis which party to reward and which one to punish. And frequently they made decisions that reflected a subtle understanding of politics. They didn’t want either party to have too much power, so they deliberately split their tickets, creating divided government year after year in most of the country. So the argument went.

But this notion still seemed to fall far short of describing reality, at least for election contests below the level of the presidency. Every two years, in a majority of the states, Americans choose candidates to represent them in their state legislatures. Polls suggest that most voters don’t know who’s running until they get to the ballot box, let alone what the incumbent has been doing at the state capitol.

I’m not exactly a role model myself on this. I’ve met my Virginia state House member, Rip Sullivan, and I know that he is a nice fellow and pretty much a down-the-line Democrat. But what exactly has he been up to in Richmond the last couple of years? I haven’t made much of an effort to find out. And I write about government for a living.

All the surveys taken in the last few years point pretty convincingly to the cluelessness of the American electorate. The Gallup organization reported in 2013 that only 35 percent of poll respondents were able to say who represented them in Congress. A survey by the Newseum Institute found that one-third of those questioned couldn’t cite even one of the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment. In 2011, the National Assessment of Educational Progress documented that three-quarters of high school seniors tested could not name a power that the Constitution granted to Congress.

The results of surveys like these are often a bit shocking, but they haven’t changed much over time. Reading through them, one might begin to question why it would be a good idea to increase turnout at the polls. Presumably, the most knowledgeable American citizens are already voting. Boosting the turnout in a midterm election to 60 percent or 80 percent would seem to be taking the choices of a largely uninformed electorate and adding to them the preferences of a new cohort that’s even less informed.

But what if, instead of beating the drums for a bigger turnout, we made an honest effort to give Americans the factual knowledge they currently don’t possess? What if we actually started teaching them how to be better-informed citizens?

This idea has been around since at least the 1950s, in the form of periodic campaigns to restore education in civics to the role it once played in the nation’s public school curriculum. These efforts have tended to draw brief flurries of positive attention from editorial pages and good government groups, and then disappear without having any significant effect. Over the past generation, the teaching of civics has actually eroded in public schools. There are just too many other subjects clamoring for attention.

But the most recent crusade for civics is more ambitious than the previous ones have been. Three years ago the Joe Foss Institute, an Arizona-based foundation named after a South Dakota governor and war hero, decided that civics would henceforth be its single-minded focus. It set out a simple but seemingly difficult goal: Persuade state legislatures to enact laws requiring high school students to pass a test of governmental knowledge to graduate. “Civics is being boxed out of the classroom today,” one of the foundation’s documents complained, “by an all-consuming focus on science, technology, English and math.”

I wouldn’t have given the Civics Education Initiative much of a chance at a time when many legislatures are having trouble getting anything passed without partisan rancor and ill feeling. But the initiative is actually doing quite well. As of the end of June, 14 states had written it into law, and several others were considering it. “It’s the simplicity that attracts people,” says Lucian Spataro, the institute’s chairman of education initiatives.

The test students must take is a battery of 100 questions derived from the exam that is administered to aspiring American citizens. Immigrants do quite well on it; more than 90 percent pass on their first try. But when it is administered to current U.S. citizens, about a third flunk. “When we show people that our kids can’t do what immigrants can do,” Spataro says, “they’re first stunned and then ashamed.”

Most of the multiple choice questions are straightforward and not very difficult. It’s reasonable to expect a high school student to know that general elections are held in November; that Thomas Jefferson, not Bill Clinton, wrote the Declaration of Independence; and that Dwight Eisenhower was not a general in the Civil War. A few of the questions are open to a bit of interpretation: A high school student in Utah wrote to his local newspaper to complain that he should have been given credit for answering that the U.S. has a “mixed economy.” The official correct answer was “market economy,” which the student claimed was misleading.

There has been pushback from some educators and state legislators who argue that high school students are already being asked to take too many tests and that the exam reduces the teaching of American government to a routine of rote memorization. These don’t seem like crippling objections to me. It might also be argued that filling people full of governmental facts at age 16 won’t necessarily make them smart voters at age 30. That’s undoubtedly true, but it’s no reason not to make the effort.

I do have a couple of quibbles, though. Let me try to explain them by invoking the 2016 presidential campaign.

In one significant respect, this year’s presidential primaries conformed to David Broder’s vision of the political system. The voters were ahead of most of the presidential candidates. They saw that the nation’s economy had not really recovered from the dislocation of 2008 and 2009. Millions of hard-working people who lost good jobs in 2008 and 2009 had never regained them. For those fortunate enough to be employed, wages had remained stagnant, and the American middle class had been steadily shrinking. The candidates, with the exceptions of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, were painfully slow to grasp this.

Where the voters got in trouble was in drawing public policy conclusions from what they had observed. Many millions of them believed that trade agreements were responsible for most of the economic dislocation; that illegal immigrants were snatching away government assistance rightfully belonging to citizens; and that blocking the immigration of Muslims would protect the country against terrorism. All of those are, at the very least, questionable assumptions.

Would an electorate grounded firmly in civics be better prepared to make policy choices in the heat of a presidential campaign? Perhaps. But their civics instruction might have to tilt less toward history and more toward current events.

It’s desirable for citizens to know who wrote the Federalist Papers and where the Statue of Liberty can be found. But it would be more useful for them to know what proportion of the 2016 federal budget is devoted to welfare and foreign aid, whether illegal immigration has been rising or falling, and which countries are our most important trading partners.

There’s a reason why issues such as those don’t come up on civics tests: They would risk generating controversy, and adding to the amount of controversy permeating the public school system is not something that anyone should recommend lightly. On the other hand, they are matters of verifiable fact. Knowing the answers to them would be a step toward producing well-informed voters -- the sort of voters who were at the heart of Broder’s idealistic vision. If we are going to be serious about teaching civics, which it seems to me we should, it might be a good idea to zero in a bit more on the century in which we live and vote.