Civic Literacy

Newsweek published an article some months ago with the title, “How Dumb Are We?” It addressed the results of a twenty-question survey to 1000 American adults, testing their knowledge of basic American history and posing the same questions that immigrants must answer in order to become American citizens. The results were disappointing—and illuminating. Too many Americans don’t know basic American history and the circumstances, governing principles, and developments that have made our country what it is today. Such findings require national attention.

In 2006, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute administered surveys to 14,000 American students and, in 2008, to 2,500 adults, testing whether they knew much about basic American history, economics, world affairs and government. The results were dismal: every participant flunked the tests, but only the bright young minds at Harvard could muster a passing D+. The adult survey in 2008 revealed that those tested who admitted serving in public office scored five percentage points worse than the average American adult.

Based on these findings, Harvard students have urged me through our Institute of Politics Study Group topic “Why Study America?” to devise a test for federal candidates that will be modeled on the same immigrant citizenship test that foreigners seeking American citizenship must pass. We’re doing that together, hoping to create a fair obligation among those seeking public office to “prove” that they have the requisite knowledge about the American system that they propose to lead. It only seems reasonable that elected public officials should know at least as much as new immigrant citizens who pass our nation’s citizenship test. At a time when public approval ratings of Congress are at an all-time low, perhaps candidates will welcome the opportunity to assure voters that they possess the basic intellectual qualifications to hold public office. If candidates take the test, we hope they’ll publish the results, and if they don’t want to take the test, perhaps they’ll tell voters why or why not citizenship applicants should be required to take the test and they shouldn’t.

Of course, this is all undertaken with the goal that we have well-informed and knowledgeable public officials making major decisions on our behalf at the power centers of government. In an age of transparency, it’s not too much to ask that public officials be transparent about their fundamental knowledge of the American system of government. The public has a major stake in assuring that they do.

Harvard students also want the opportunity to affirm why this institution is a national educational leader. As the oldest university in America, and the one that has produced the greatest number of U.S. presidents (five), Harvard students should hardly be satisfied with being the only ones not to fail the ISI survey in 2006. A group of Harvard students, looking at a wide range of topics that test one’s knowledge of basic national history and government, are selecting some basic questions to randomly ask their fellow students this semester—Jay Leno-style. It will all be in good fun, but with a larger purpose—perhaps other universities will follow Harvard’s lead in replicating programs such as the Harvard Civics Program. This joint IOP-Phillips Brooks House Association program connects Harvard students with fifth graders in Boston to teach them more about the United States and its system of government. Harvard students are also tutoring foreign Harvard employees who are preparing to seek American citizenship to help them learn about the United States and the fundamentals of government.

Civics education should start early, helping students and incentivizing teachers to have a deeper appreciation for the roots of American freedom. The United States needs leaders who are knowledgeable about the principles of American governance—particularly citizenship rights and responsibilities—and be better prepared to perpetuate the ideals that have helped America prosper for over two centuries. Perpetuating American ideals, knowing our national story, and having leaders who know what our nation has endured will help us all gain a better perspective of where we’re headed in this new century. Our leaders, many of whom will come from Harvard in the coming years, will then be better prepared to lead our nation—and we citizens will be better prepared to follow.

So, watch for Harvard students and me around Harvard’s campus, armed with a camera and a microphone, and help uphold Harvard’s standard of excellence by knowing your civics! Harvard students will lead the way to help our nation become more civically literate.

George R. Nethercutt Jr. is a former U.S. representative and leads a study group on Wednesdays this spring as a Resident Fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics.