After winning Alabama’s recent election for a U.S. Senate seat, former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville displayed a disturbing lack of civic knowledge when he claimed “Our government wasn’t set up for one group to have all three branches of government ... you know, the House, the Senate, and the executive.”
No football or Alabama jokes here because his knowledge gap is not unique. There are numerous online civics quizzes, and what they reveal is that most Americans have little knowledge or understanding of how our federal government operates, the roles and responsibilities of most elected officials, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens.
This is especially disturbing if you read the incorrect information being spread on social media. It is sad and unsettling to realize these same folks are registered voters whose votes are required to maintain our system of government.
One survey revealed that only 12% knew the 13th Amendment freed the slaves and that a whopping 60% didn’t know the term lengths for members of Congress. In a 2019 civics survey, 14% said Antonin Scalia was the current chief justice of the Supreme Court. Scalia had died three years earlier, in 2016.
It should come as no surprise that we are in this situation. Nationally, we spend $50 per student on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) while we spend 5 cents per student on civics education.
I’m happy that STEM is being promoted in schools, as most of the new jobs being created require that focus. But civic studies is crucial to the protection of our system of government.
Forty states, including North Dakota, require a high school student to take a civics class, but in 30 states it is only a half-credit course. Only 16 states, including North Dakota, require a civics exam to graduate.
Questions are arising daily about governmental power to impose mask mandates and restrict the size of gatherings, the power of a president to invoke executive orders, and here in North Dakota, the power of the governor to fill a vacant legislative seat. These are important and divisive matters, and far too many people have no clue what role they play as voters.
I’m not that “old guy” saying let’s just get back to the basics, the three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic), but it’s pretty clear that without a new focus on civics, we stand to lose more than our share of the jobs of the future.
Gary Adkisson is publisher of The Bismarck Tribune.