School has started up again around the country and in many—though not all—places, so have civics classes. States differ a lot in regard to their requirements, if any, for civics education and whether kids even learn about the Constitution.
Twenty-seven states recently considered bills that would teach students how to be active, participating citizens in their communities. For instance, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law in the summer of 2018 that requires schools to offer a course in which students have to conduct a hands-on civics project. In addition, the state will select student volunteers to carry out voter registration drives on high school campuses.
You can find your state’s civics ed requirements here.
A reason this is a hot topic these days is that low-income students and students of color generally score lower than do wealthy white students on their knowledge of how our local, state, and federal governments work. Some educators call this issue the “civic empowerment gap.” As a result poorer and minority members of society often have less influence in their communities and in the country because they don’t know how to make the levers of power work for them.
In addition, Americans vote at a much lower rate than do citizens of many other countries. In 2016, less than 56 percent of the US voting-age population cast ballots. This places us twenty-sixth out of thirty-two similar democratic countries. We rank ahead of Luxembourg but behind Estonia.
Eligible voters here also register to vote at lower rates than in other countries. Only 70 percent of voting-age American citizens do so. This compares with 91 percent just over our northern border in Canada and 96 percent in Sweden. Some countries even require citizens to vote.
Despite our low turnout, 70 percent of Americans say that voting is important. And, more people report that they went to the polls than is actually the case. Our hearts might be in the right place but too many of us don’t really show up to mark our ballots. This is especially true, alas, for young people.
What does this have to do with the Constitution and with our book Fault Lines in the Constitution? If you’ve read the book or followed our blog, you know that what we focus on is the structure of our government and the problems that it causes.
Many civics and American history courses pay more attention to the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments) than to the articles in the Constitution. These articles lay out the arrangement of the three branches of our government. Too often, those courses that do explain the articles do so in a way that makes our system seem inevitable and, well, if not perfect, then the best in the world.
Explaining the many debates that the Framers had in 1787, Fault Lines in the Constitution shows that our current system was not at all inevitable. (Did you know that we almost ended up with a president-for-life? Or, that the Electoral College was a last-minute addition?) We also show how the Framers’ decisions cause turmoil today. Intrigued? Read the chapter on Ebola.
Civics classes can actually be fun and interesting. We hope Fault Lines in the Constitution contributes not only to your knowledge this year but also to your enjoyment and engagement. If you want some background, check out our Resources for Students. For teaching ideas, take a look at our Resources for Teachers.
As a reporter for National Public Radio said, “The principles of the U.S. government are enshrined in founding documents, but civics classes don’t have to be a narrow, boring reading of those texts.”