As President Joe Biden calls his political opponents “threats to democracy” and Republicans express doubts about the integrity of basic democratic institutions, a leading American jurist thinks he may have the answer.
“A self-governing democratic republic cannot continue from generation to generation with an ignorant public,” said Douglas Ginsburg, former chief justice of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. “It’s a formula for falling into a kind of authoritarian regime in which people look to the man on the white horse to give them things.”
Ginsburg is perhaps best known for almost becoming a Reagan nominee for the United States Supreme Court until he withdrew his name from consideration after a national controversy over his past marijuana use decades earlier. .
One of the states that shares this concern about civic education is New Hampshire. Last year, Governor Chris Sununu signed a law making it a graduation requirement that all high school students in the state pass the national civics exam given to new Americans. School districts have until July of next year to prepare before it goes into effect for the class of 2023.
Meanwhile, the New Hampshire State Board of Education has adopted a 16-week civics course based on the Civics Fundamentals curriculum launched by Ginsburg in September 2021. It is “a free, standards-aligned course to help all learners develop the foundational civic knowledge that every American should have,” according to the website. It uses the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services 100-question exam as a starting point for the education on how American democracy is designed to work.
According to a 2018 report according to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, about two-thirds of Americans would fail the citizenship test if they were required to take it. And one 2016 survey of the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that one in four Americans was unable to name the three branches of government.
For each of the 100 questions, Ginsburg hosts a short video — under three minutes — to further explain the correct answer. Ginsburg said the videos not only feature talking heads, but include stock footage, re-enactments and animations.
“Students are much more likely to absorb material from the video presentation than they are from reading – for better or for worse – but that’s where they are and so that’s where I want to find them,” Ginsburg said.
So far, 1,800 users have taken the course.
Ginsburg’s timing is perfect. State governments are also expressing concern about how little their high school graduates know about the democratic process.
In Florida, Governor Ron Desantis recently signed three bills addressed how civics should be taught in public schools and universities. A bill requires high school students to pass a civics assessment before graduation.
The South Dakota Department of Education has released a proposed set of social studies standards from kindergarten to 12th grade. One of the new standards aims to ensure that students have “strong skills in making sense of the past, understanding their neighbors, earning a living, and exercising the rights and responsibilities of citizenship with care.”
According to Rebecca Winthrop of the Brookings Institute, the American education system was built on the notion that schools play a central role in preparing young Americans to be civically engaged. But with educational initiatives inspired by the “Sputnik moment” in 1957 or President George W. Bush’s push for STEM through the No Child Left Behind Left Act, the focus has shifted to math and Sciences.
There has been no gain in civics proficiency in America since 1998, and less than 25% of students nationwide are deemed proficient, The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports.
When the opinion on Dobbs v. Jackson – the landmark case that found a constitutional right to abortion did not exist – was disclosed in early May, protesters gathered outside the homes of the conservative justices of the United States Supreme Court.
Ginsburg said the view was outrageous and completely inconsistent with our American principles.
“People treat the courts, and the Supreme Court in particular, as if it were a legislature,” Ginsburg said. “They are supposed to be independent of public opinion and dependent on the constitution. If people knew that, they wouldn’t waste their time protesting and harassing this court. This is a striking manifestation that we have seen in recent years. It gets worse and worse as people know less and less.