An informed citizenry — the strength of a people

We wrote last week about John Hamlin Gordon’s new book, “Liberty’s Flight.” Gordon, who lives in Medusa, has been working on the book for a decade.

We were impressed with Gordon’s deep knowledge and love of American history when we talked to him earlier for a podcast. The country’s history is personal for him. Gordon has based his novel — the start of a history-based series — on his family’s first American: Alexander Gordon, who came to the New World from Scotland. The actual Alexander Gordon is buried in the American Revolutionary War veterans cemetery in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

At the end of our interview, we asked Gordon who should read his book. He responded, “Everybody coming across the border so they know what we know.”

He reflected a moment and added, “Really, everyone should read the book. My wife is a schoolteacher. People in our generation” — Gordon is 70 — “we knew what Yorktown was. Today, they don’t know it.”

We’re glad he paused after his first statement. It gave us pause, too. All of us in the United States, except for the Native Americans, are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, or descendents of slaves brought here in bondage. Even the Gordon family’s first American was an immigrant. Those who arrived in the 1700s, through a rebellion, helped to forge a new nation.

But those who came after, whether in bondage or of their own free will, made contributions, too. And the Native Americans, oppressed as they were by European settlers, continue to preserve their own heritage while adding to the current United States culture.

New immigrants are still coming. Among their requirements to become citizens, they must pass a test. It’s a 20-question multiple-choice test. We just took it ourselves. You can, too. Practice tests are posted on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration website.

The test asks basic questions about the United States’ geography, government, and history. It makes sense that people who are about to become United States citizens should know the basics of their new country.

But what about the Americans who were born here? How much do we know? The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation — a not-for-profit founded at Princeton at the close of World War II to encourage sound teaching — recently surveyed citizens in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, asking similar questions about American history.

In only one state — Vermont — did a majority of citizens pass the test. In Vermont, 4 percent earned an A, 13 percent earned a B, 23 percent earned a C, 13 percent earned a D, and 47 percent got an F.

New York State was below the middle of the pack, coming in 32nd; 60 percent of New Yorkers failed the test. The five states that fared the worst were Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Louisiana — with Louisiana, last, reporting a failure rate of 73 percent.

“Unfortunately,” Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, said in releasing the results, “the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has validated what studies have shown for a century: Americans don’t possess the history knowledge they need to be informed and engaged citizens.”

Summarizing some of the dismal survey results: Only 15 percent of American adults could correctly note the year the U.S. Constitution was written, only 25 percent knew how many amendments there are to the U.S. Constitution, 25 percent did not know that freedom of speech was guaranteed under the First Amendment, and 57 percent did not know that Woodrow Wilson was the commander in chief during World War I.

Why does it matter if most Americans don’t know the basics of United States history? There is, of course, George Santayana’s oft-repeated caution: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

But more: Because we are a nation of immigrants, we need to understand the common principles that bind us as well as the diverse differences that enrich us.

As Levine put it: “Knowledge of American history must serve as an anchor in a time when change assails us, a laboratory for studying the changes that are occurring and a vehicle for establishing a common bond when social divisions are deep.”

He went on, “This requires a fundamental change in how American history is taught and learned to make it relevant to our students’ lives, captivating and inclusive to all Americans.”

In our state, the New York State School Boards Association took a poll of its members last fall. Only half of school board members who responded to the poll said their districts are sufficiently preparing students to understand the role citizens play in a democracy.

More than two-thirds, nearly 70 percent, would like to see civic readiness become a graduation requirement in New York. At this time, there is no such proposal for a statewide graduation requirement.

Civic readiness is, however, an accountability factor under New York’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. To that end, New York is developing a “civic readiness index.”

The State Education Department defines this in a mission statement: “Encourage all students to believe in the power of their own voices and actions. Equip all students with the skills and knowledge necessary to engage responsibly in our culturally diverse democracy. Empower all students to make informed decisions to enhance our interconnected world.”

We realize teachers are already overburdened with requirements they must meet; an administrator at an environmental program recently told us her program is so popular with teachers — classes have to be turned away — because it fits the required curriculum, allowing teachers to check off the needed boxes.

We’re sure teachers statewide don’t want any more boxes to check off. But we urge individual teachers as well as individual school districts to not only see the importance of civic engagement but to find ways — perhaps using some of the methods being explored by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation — to help their students master the basics of United States history and government.

We recently visited a fourth-grade class to read poetry. We weren’t surprised students that age, 9 or 10, didn’t know who Walt Whitman was — one girl posited he was Walt Disney’s brother — but we were surprised they didn’t know what the Civil War was.

As it stands now, our newest citizens are the only ones required to master the basics of United States history and government. Older students — even adults as life-long learners like John Hamlin Gordon — can, on their own, read the fascinating chapters that, over the course of centuries, have shaped a great republic and a great democracy.

We need an informed citizenry if the next chapters are to be as rich.

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