New report highlights the need for civic education

One of 215 new citizens looks at the United States Constitution after a ceremony at the National Archives Sept. 17, 2012, in Washington, DC. The ceremony was held on the 225th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in the Rotunda of the archives which holds the "Charters of Freedom": The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

We often hear about Americans’ declining knowledge of our system of government, but a new report by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center highlights just how dire our civics education problem has become.

Since 2013, the Annenberg Center has celebrated Constitution Day, Sept. 17, by administering an annual civics knowledge survey—and this year, the results should serve as a wake-up call, not only to teachers and professors, but to all Americans.


According to the Annenberg Center’s results, only 5% of U.S. adults can correctly name all five rights protected under the First Amendment (freedom of speech, worship, assembly, press and petition). In fact, only 9% of Americans even know of the existence of the right to petition. Worse, some 22% of citizens think that the right to bear arms is protected under the First Amendment, rather than the Second.

To be sure, the survey is not all bad news. It finds that 66% of Americans can name all three branches of government, which is, however shocking, a much higher proportion than in years past. The authors warn that due to changes in data collection methods, we cannot compare this year’s results to last year’s results—yet long-term data show that the portion of Americans able to name our three branches of government has been consistently growing.

But the reason for this growth in basic knowledge is concerning—it is most likely the result of a hyper-partisan political media diet, not the result of a growing interest in our civic history and institutions.

The sad reality is that while Americans have stronger political opinions than ever, they have never known less about our founding and our Constitution. In short, Americans have never known less about what makes them American. What makes us unique is not blood or soil or even religion; rather, the American Founding is about a new form of government based on the twin concepts of liberty and equality first laid out in the Declaration of Independence, and later brought to life in the Constitution.

Our government, Abraham Lincoln tells us, is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” To have good government, we must thus ensure that the people have a firm grasp on both the how—and the why—of the functioning of our government. It’s not enough for Americans to know that there are three branches of government—they need to understand why we have three branches of government.

My organization, the Jack Miller Center, is dedicated to this mission. Since 2004, we have been advancing the work of educators who are committed to teaching the core texts and ideas of the American political tradition, because we believe that citizenship begins with“reflection and choice.” Indeed, at the Jack Miller Center, we believe that it is not just America’s birth that requires rational deliberation—it is also her continued existence. If our form of government and our way of life “shall not perish from the earth,” each generation of Americans must be invited to reflect upon the history and principles that make us exceptional, and then affirm them—and fight for them.

The path to American civic renewal depends on the wider dissemination of the great primary texts of our nation’s history. If you want a high-schooler to understand the Supreme Court, don’t explain the principle of judicial review, have them read the Lincoln-Douglas debates on the Dred Scott decision. If you want to teach a college freshman about how slavery fits into the American founding, don’t assign dueling perspectives from the 1619 Project and the 1776 Project, let them read Frederick Douglass’ speech on the relationship between slavery and the American Constitution.

Parents innately understand the importance of content-rich civics. My organization released a poll last year which found a vast majority of parents across the country – over 89% – believe that giving their children an education in America’s founding principles is “very important.” They want their kids to understand the ideas behind the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. Unfortunately, though, politics is getting in the way; our poll found that over 61% of parents believe that their child’s school is promoting a political agenda. People clearly want change. The time is ripe for civic renewal.

Civic renewal starts with improving civic knowledge. It’s time to empower the next generation to take up the work of self-government with a rich understanding of the significance and fragility of the American political system. By expanding the teaching of our founding principles and history, from K-12 and beyond, we can foster a new generation of citizens “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Hans Zeiger is president of the Jack Miller Center, a nationwide network of scholars and teachers committed to advancing the core texts and ideas of the American political tradition in Philadelphia.