I attended high school in a wealthy suburb of Dallas, and one moment from my freshman year has stuck with me in the seven years since. During a lull in class, I asked an acquaintance of mine what year the U.S. declared independence from Great Britain.
His dead-serious response? 1970.
Sadly, those kinds of answers to basic questions about American history and politics are not uncommon. According to the 2020 Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, only half of voting-age Americans could correctly identify the three branches of government.
The tally was a significant improvement over 2019, but it is quite possible that the increase is due to an unusually politically-charged year filled with impeachment proceedings and notable court cases rather than any sustained improvement in civic knowledge.
Even more worrisome was that roughly one in four Americans couldn’t name a single branch of government — essentially unchanged compared to 2019 — signaling a critical failure by our education system to inform Americans how our governmental institutions function and interact with one another.
These are basic facts and principles that every American should know, yet time and time again studies find that native-born citizens know less about our country than naturalized immigrants.
Sadly, even our patriotic state of Texas is as guilty as any other in failing its citizens.
Unless a student has access to Advanced Placement classes, they will receive only one semester of instruction in American government, and won’t receive any instruction in pre-1877 U.S. history after 8th Grade.
What is the result? Voter turnout being inversely related to age.
If we have difficulty grasping the history and principles behind our republic, how on Earth are we supposed to preserve it? Our institutions are only as strong as their weakest links, and a citizenry unaware of its institutions and obligations could break the chain for good.
In the past, conservative complaints about civics education were hand-waved away as being the result of “anger,” but fortunately, there is budding bipartisan interest.
“Concern over Americans’ civic illiteracy has gone bipartisan,” explains Dr. Thomas Lindsay, Distinguished Senior Fellow of Higher Education & Constitutional Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
“The title of a CNN.com op-ed by Chris Cillizza screams its conclusion: “Americans know literally nothing about the Constitution.”’
With the 87th Texas Legislature now underway, what should lawmakers do to improve the state of civics education in Texas?
First, native-born Americans should be held to the exact same standards as naturalized immigrants. Every student should have to pass the citizenship test before graduating from high school, similar to the end-of-course exams that are already required.
With questions like “How many amendments does the Constitution have?” and “When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?” that shouldn’t be a significant burden, but it would serve as a critical method of review right as high school students (ideally) become voters.
Second, high school students should have more opportunities to engage with American history, values, and systems. Dr. Lindsay and the Texas Public Policy Foundation proposed an elective course dedicated to the founding fathers and their values, which is a great idea from a purely academic standpoint.
For students who desire a more interactive curriculum, lawmakers could replicate Florida’s model and increase funding for programs like mock trial, moot court, and speech and debate (particularly congressional debate). Not only are these activities incredibly instructive, they are also fun, and teach skills that serve students for the rest of their lives.
It may seem like the American experiment is dying, but Texas doesn’t have to roll over and accept it. With robust civics education improvements, lawmakers can help preserve our republic for many generations to come.
Garion Frankel serves as the Chairman of the Texas A&M College Republicans, the Senior Policy Advisor for the Texas Federation of College Republicans, and a Commentary Contributor for The Western Journal.