Education and Our Nation

It’s been a big week for education in Philadelphia. NBC’s buzzed-about Education Nation set up shop at the National Constitution Center, bringing with it a cutting-edge outdoor exhibition and a slate of big-name media personalities (Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell broadcasted live here on June 8. See Hardball’s broadcast with Mayor Michael Nutter above). This fanfare has been backdropped by the Philadelphia School District’s ever-unfolding budget struggle.

The National Constitution Center is the right hub of this week’s education dialogue. As America’s only nonprofit, nonpartisan institution devoted to the U.S. Constitution, the Center strives to illuminate constitutional ideals and inspire active citizenship. Education is central to our mission, and over half of our visitors come from school groups. What’s more, the link between education and active American citizenship is one that traces back to our nation’s founding.

Gilbert Stuart (1755 – 1828), American Oil on canvas, ca. 1798 Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Gift of Caroline H. Richardson, 1904

In his farewell address as president, George Washington recommended “as an object of primary importance” the creation of “institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.”He believed it was essential to our democracy “that public opinion should be enlightened.” (You’ll be able to learn more about George Washington this summer, when the Center presents the feature exhibition Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon, a fascinating look at the man behind the myth.)

Thomas Jefferson wrote to a colleague, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and what never will be.”  He emphasized that point again in the Notes on the State of Virginia declaring “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers… The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved.”

The development of the American public school system in the 19th century was based on this vision that all education had civic purposes and that every teacher was a civics teacher. Evidence of the centrality of that vision to our school system is the fact that 40 of our 50 state constitutions underline the importance of civic literacy; some 13 state constitutions identify the central purpose of their educational system as promoting good citizenship, democracy and free government.

However, as noted in The Huffington Post, only seven percent of eighth graders could correctly identify the three branches of government on the civics portion of the 2010 National Assessment of Education Progress test to satisfy the grading standard of “complete.” The 2010 NAEP results showed overall stagnation and low proficiency rates in civics.

Teacher’s corner

Answer sample questions from the NAEP Civic Assessment exam here.

“That’s pathetic,” former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told The Huffington Post upon hearing the result of the branches of government question. Justice O’Connor (who serves on the Board of the National Constitution Center) has been active in promoting civics education by launching the innovative iCivics program. In her acceptance speech at the Center’s 2003 Liberty Medal award ceremony, Justice O’Connor noted, “Knowledge about the ideas embodied in the Constitution and the ways in which it shapes our lives is not passed down from generation to generation through the gene pool; it must be learned anew by each generation.”

Does our educational system provide sufficient education about civics and the Constitution in order to inspire an informed and active citizenry? In your opinion, what else can be done in schools to ensure the survival of our democracy?

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