At least once a month, I see some clip where someone with a camera stops random people on the street and tries to get them to answer “easy” questions about current events or our government. Inevitably a large number of people are unable to do this, and the audience has a good laugh at their expense.
For example, Jimmy Kimmel once took to the street to ask people if they preferred Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act. Of course, Obamacare was simply a nickname for The Affordable Care Act… but that didn’t stop people from answering with their partisan answers and making a fool of themselves anyway. Even though we laughed at them for their ignorance, their lack of knowledge wasn’t unique or especially egregious. Nor is that phenomenon limited to current events, politics, or history. If you stopped random people on the street you would find that many Americans struggle to answer basic questions about government functions too, even people with college degrees.
Purdue’s president, Mitch Daniels, has had enough. He has proposed making a civics graduation requirement. This would be assessed by some sort of test, maybe even the same citizenship test we give prospective immigrants. Some people took issue with this suggestion, but the powers that be at the university are seriously mulling the proposal.
Whether they decide to go with it or not, it won’t make much of a difference. America’s ignorance of their government and history is a systemic problem and cannot simply be fixed by adding a band-aid at the highest level of education. While requiring students to pass a civics test to graduate college makes logical sense, it is not fundamentally different than what they would have already done to that point. If you are a graduate of a four-year university or even high school, you have presumably passed a couple of social-studies or civics tests. Yet only 36% of Americans can pass the citizenship test. (Note the test only requires you to get 60% of the questions right to pass.)
The issue isn’t that Americans have never been taught the information needed to be a well-rounded citizen; it’s that they don’t value it. Matters of the constitution, politics, and government simply mix in with all of the other information that was important to know “that one time for that test” and never again or at least that’s how people see it.
If you want people to remember this information you have to convince them that it is relevant to their lives. We don’t need a test, we need a PR campaign. We need to get people to care about civics, policy, and history as much as they care about NBA scores. People that can’t list the U.S. Presidential line of succession can somehow list all of the Kardashians and Jenners. There is a reason the History Channel is mostly reality TV shows now. This is not a matter of the information being available, it’s a matter of it being prioritized. And in the age of reality TV and social media, America’s knowledge priorities are upside down. As a civics teacher, I certainly wish I knew how to fix that… but I know it won’t be fixed with another test.