The Deficit That Matters

I know I’ve been beating this horse for awhile now, but I am firmly convinced that the most troubling deficit Americans face is not fiscal.

It’s our deficit of civic literacy.

Only 36 percent of Americans can correctly name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35.5% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2006 report on civics competencies found that barely a quarter of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders are proficient in civics, with only five percent of seniors able to identify and explain checks on presidential power.  Things haven’t improved since then; the 2010 results were released earlier this year, and student performance at the 12th grade level showed a statistically significant decline since the 2006 test. Average scores for female, White and African American students declined, and the percentage of 12th grade students who reported studying the Constitution dropped by a statistically significant five percent. A list of all the additional literature documenting the extent of civic ignorance would be too lengthy to include.

The consequences of this ignorance are profound. The most important predictor of active civic engagement is greater civic knowledge–according to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, greater civic literacy trumps even a college degree, and “no other variable, including age, income, race, gender, religion, or partisanship was found to exceed both the breadth and depth of civic literacy’s positive impact on active political engagement”.

Our research team conducted a survey of state departments of education, as part of an effort to determine the content and extent of civics instruction the various states are requiring. We identified two basic problems: first, there is no generally accepted definition of “civics” or “civic literacy.” Definitions ranged from knowledge of the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights and their historical antecedents (our preferred meaning) to approaches that implicitly conflate community “good works” like planting trees or picking up trash in the parks or by the side of the road, with the production of “good citizens.” Depending upon a state’s particular view of what civics encompasses, civic education requirements might be met by taking a government course, a separate course called “civics,” an American history course, or some combination.

The second problem we found was that, with a few notable exceptions, even in states with very good civics and government standards, like Indiana, those standards are essentially aspirational. The requirements aren’t part of the current high-stakes testing regime, with the result that they are not taken seriously. Public schools’ focus remains firmly fixed upon those subjects being evaluated under No Child Left Behind, and the result is that large numbers of American students graduate from high school profoundly ignorant of the history, philosophy and architecture of their government institutions.

Scholars have identified a number of theorized consequences of our civic deficit: loss of civic identity; loss of public accountability; a paralyzed/polarized politics; a loss of personal agency, and unfortunate effects on the study of religion and science.

  • Civic identity. America is one of the most diverse countries on earth. Our citizens do not share a political history, a common religion, or a single race or ethnicity. As a consequence of immigration, we frequently do not even speak the same language. In the absence of such cultural ties, we require what Robert Bellah calls a “civil religion” in order to forge a common civic identity. In the United States, that civil religion has centered upon our constituent documents and the governing philosophy they embody, on what I call “The American Idea”. When Americans don’t know the contents of that Idea, when they are ignorant of the history, philosophy and evolution of our constitutional form of government, they may share a common national geography, but they don’t share a civic identity.
  • Public accountability. We hear a great deal about the obligation of government to be transparent and accountable. We hear less about the obligations of citizens to be sufficiently informed so that they can respond appropriately to information about the way in which government is conducting the people’s business. True accountability requires that those in power report adequately on the laws and regulations they have enacted and the other actions they have taken; it also requires a populace able to measure those laws and activities against the standards prescribed by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. When either half of that process is not functioning, accountability is compromised.
  • A paralyzed, polarized politics. We can see the consequences of our civic deficit every day, in presidential debates and campaigns for city councils. The loss of civic literacy is a loss of the ability to communicate. We can talk at each other, but no longer with each other, because we are not speaking the same language. American politicians on all points along the political spectrum constantly refer to the Constitution, but you only need to listen a short while to realize that very few of them seem to be talking about the same document.   This lack of a common frame of reference makes productive dialogue impossible.
  • Loss of personal agency. In a country where citizens constantly interact with public organizations—from the Social Security Administration, to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, to the local zoning administrator—a basic knowledge of one’s rights and duties as a citizen is essential to a sense of personal empowerment and efficacy. This is especially important to people who have limited personal and fiscal resources.
  • Science and religion. What is rarely noted, but important, is the relationship between students’ civic knowledge and their appreciation of the roots of both the American religious experience and the Establishment Clause. This is equally the case with science; both science and our particular conception of liberty and personal autonomy emerged from the Enlightenment, and some scholars have argued that science cannot flourish in a society in which that relationship is unrecognized.

The question is: what should we do? How do we fix this problem, which is at the root of so many other problems?

First, we need additional research.  What are the reasons for our current deficit? Why haven’t we been able to sustain previous efforts to strengthen civic education? What elements of civic literacy lead to civic participation and action? What curricula have demonstrated effectiveness? What do citizens absolutely need to understand in order to be empowered participants in our civic conversations? What do they need to know in order to hold government accountable?

Second, we need a campaign to draw increased public attention to the nature and extent of the problems caused by our deficit of civic literacy. We need to “connect the dots” between our impoverished civic understanding and our political gridlock and polarization, and we need to make the case that citizenship requires more than a birth certificate (short form or long!).

Deficit reduction needs to begin with sound civics education.


  1. The bitterly vitriolic divide between Republican and Democratic Congressional Representatives is at an all time high. Perhaps, this is partly due to perception, but I have been following national politics since Watergate, and I cannot remember a more polarizing atmosphere than the one enveloping contemporary politics. Whether we are at a maximum or not can be debated, but the fact that we have dysfunctional gridlock is apparent.
    I believe there are specific institutionalized ingredients that contribute to disruptive politics. These divisive institutions have not suddenly appeared, but they have matured towards greater conflict and have conspired in synergistic discordance. Continue reading →

  2. This is exactly why I have signed up to take a class next semester called “Intro to American Politics.” I am 30 years old, more than halfway through my college career, and I am ashamed to say that I don’t know or understand even a fraction of the things I should when it comes to government and politics. The older I get, the more interested I become in social/political issues, but I haven’t educated myself enough to TRULY understand or defend my positions on anything. None of this was emphasized when I was in high school (I took one government class, and pretty much snoozed through the whole thing because, “who cares”) and now I find myself wishing I’d paid more attention. Thanks for yet another insightful post!

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