Failing civics lessons

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, June 18th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Civics 101. 

Many American students graduate without a basic knowledge of how our government works. WORLD reporter Kim Henderson introduces us today to some people making a case for civics education.

KIM HENDERSON, CORRESPONDENT: David Higgs spent the bulk of his career guiding college freshmen through required world history courses… 

HIGGS: You guys have a test on Thursday… 

From the Punic Wars to Pearl Harbor, history helped Higgs engage young minds for three decades. But he’s noticed a deficit. 

HIGGS: I would like to see more emphasis on American history. We need more civics classes.

He says academic instruction has been replaced with an inundation of media. 

HIGGS: …which seems to be always in some type of harangue over politics. So it seems to be a turnoff to them, and we need to get them to understand they are a part of that process and to be prepared.

Higgs sees many students arrive at college with little understanding about how their government works. They lack the basics.

HIGGS: –basic understandings of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the duties of a president of the United States, obligations of the Congress to the president or the relations of the Supreme Court to the president. 

It’s Monday night, and a group of teenagers are gathered in a parking lot for some social interaction. 


Civics is the furthest thing from their minds.  

AUDIO: (Kim: Name the 3 branches of the government. Can anybody do that?) Guy: I can’t. (laughs) Girl: Is it legislative? Uh… (snaps fingers) Guy: Republic? Kim: How old do you have to be to run for President? Guy: 21? (laughs) Girl: 25? (Kim: Does anybody know who the vice president is?) Girl: Mike Pence? (Kim: Who’s the secretary of state?) Guy: Nancy Pelosi? 

A couple of 17-year-olds hanging out around the fringe fare a little better.

GIRLS: The legislative branch, the executive branch, the judicial branch. (haltingly) We’ve been out of school a while.

They also got the age you can run for president, 35, as well as some of the vice president’s responsibilities. But could they name any of the amendments that make up the Bill of Rights? 

GIRLS: Not off the top of my head, but I probably do know them… 

The problem isn’t localized. Late last year, a federal judge in Rhode Island began considering a different kind of case for civics.  


Fourteen plaintiffs, including students and their parents, sued the state, arguing that Rhode Island violates students’ constitutional rights. How? By failing to teach civics, leaving students unprepared for life as responsible citizens.

But David Higgs says civics knowledge isn’t the only thing lacking. Civics teachers are scarce, too.

HIGGS: We’re a capitalistic society. You don’t find someone who just majors in political science unless they go into law school and there’s, you know, more opportunity out there for them in that regard. Not in teaching. 

Thirty-year-old Walt Allen bucked that trend. He has a degree in history and a masters in social studies.

ALLEN: It’s so easy to get people interested in social studies because it, all the dramatic aspects of our lives — politics, finances, you know — it’s all whirled into one. I feel bad for science and math teachers because the deck is stacked against them…

Allen did his student teaching at a public school in the Bronx. He often taught recent immigrants, like two girls from Yemen he remembers. 

ALLEN: Explaining how, uh, our revolutionary forefathers were taxed to the point of war  — they just couldn’t understand that. They were like, well, what do you mean they rebelled against the king? They just, you know, can’t imagine that happening. 

These days Allen teaches in the Deep South. His objective is the same now as it was in New York. It’s something he learned from his high school government teacher on a military base in South Korea.   

ALLEN: He said, “If you don’t take away anything from my class, understand that the legislative branch makes laws. The executive branch enforces laws, and the judicial branch interprets laws.” If I can get a student to understand that, then they understand pretty much how the government works. 

He says students who’ve grown up in the United States are familiar with the broad stroke of ideas, but the specifics of government trip them up. Like how old you have to be to vote.  

ALLEN: I run into that a lot. We have a lot of students who might not be in a household where an adult is actively voting. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of lack of understanding. And it’s really sad. It is not this generation’s fault. It’s the fault of every generation that’s come before them. 

Like David Higgs, Allen points to growing distrust of government that’s harming young citizens. He says it’s a shame. 

ALLEN: We certainly have our problems, but if you’ve traveled anywhere else in the world, it doesn’t take long to see we have got a pretty good thing going.

KIM: How old are you guys? (STUDENTS: 15, 17, 18…)

Back at the parking lot, a recent high school graduate admits one thing from her  civics lessons really stuck with her.  

STUDENT: Oh, the Roe v. Wade. That kind of stuff got to me… What did I learn? Like, abortion is wrong, but, like, if someone has sex without consent and they want to abort the baby, uh, I don’t find that wrong… (Kim: So you learned this in –?) STUDENT: Government class…

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson in Wesson and Brookhaven, Mississippi.


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