Shribman: America has a civics crisis

David Shribman

Three out of 5 eighth-graders tested in a nationwide survey did not know that the 1803 Marbury v. Madison case established the Supreme Court’s power to decide whether a federal law is constitutional.

Half of them could not attribute the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident” to the Declaration of Independence.

The latest Nation’s Report Card on students’ mastery of history, geography and civics makes for gloomy reading. The (sort of) good news: There hasn’t been much change from four years ago, and there’s small improvement in some demographic groups, particularly among Hispanic students.

The bad news: Only about a third of American eighth-graders can correctly separate which presidential powers are set forth in the Constitution from those not specified in the Constitution.

America has many educational challenges, but one of the most serious is the decline in general knowledge, especially history and geography, among students. Whether that can be attributed to the Internet, or increased non-academic demands on schools and teachers, or the zeal to test, or a decline in rigor in the nation’s classrooms and in the culture more broadly, the general-knowledge deficit is as much of a crisis as the budget deficit, maybe graver.

“To be a good citizen in a democracy you need to be well informed about history and geography,” says Hunter Rawlings, a classics scholar who is the former president of both the University of Iowa and Cornell University and, since 2011, the president of the Association of American Universities. “This country depends on an educated citizenry — and those who do not have this kind of knowledge will be voting for people who will make momentous decisions on health care, foreign policy and the economy.”

In his important new book in defense of the liberal-arts tradition, commentator Fareed Zakaria points out that the “notion that young people are somehow callow and morally unserious is not a new charge.”

Nearly three decades ago, E.D. Hirsch Jr., an emeritus professor at the University of Virginia, decried the decline in cultural literacy, which he defined as “the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world” — essentially the fundamentals of “the major domains of human activity from sports to science.”

This notion, and Hirsch’s 1987 book, “Cultural Literacy: What every America nneeds to know,” were embraced by conservatives skeptical of the “relevance” movement in the nation’s classrooms.

But the value of his insight should not be confined to the 1980s, and the drive for cultural literacy ought to be endorsed by Americans of all political ideologies.

Indeed, in only the fifth sentence of his book, Hirsch, now 87 years old, argued that cultural literacy “constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children, the only reliable way of combating the social determinism that now condemns them to remain in the same social and educational condition as their parents.”

Do you know the basic outlines of the Sacco and Vanzetti case, which you would not expect to find in an intellectual bucket list prized by conservatives? You should. In fact, you must. How about the Russo-Japanese War? Essential. The Scopes Trial? Of course.

What about the historical significance of the words “Kitty Hawk”? If you don’t know, check out David McCullough’s new book. Hint: The title is “The Wright Brothers.”

“Education is definitely changing, but there’s never been a more important time to incorporate social studies into the curriculum,” says Chasidy White, an eighth-grade social-studies teacher in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board. “We are in a global community and do international business and collaboration. That’s why history is important. That’s why geography is important. Social studies should be driving all the other elements in the curriculum, and in many schools it is not.”

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.