Student Ignorance of Civics Is Nothing New

The school system now consumes more than twice as much money per student (after inflation) as it did in 1970, while producing all the same outcomes, so clearly the system is growing more and more dysfunctional and is headed toward a major crisis. But a decline in outcomes is not the problem.

Clearly the failure of civic education does not mean the nation is about to have an existential crisis. If that were going to happen, we'd have had it long before now.

On the other hand, just because the school system's failure has been going on for a long time doesn't mean it isn't a failure. And school failure always has consequences.

Just think how much better American life might have been over the past century if we had been a nation of citizens who knew what citizens ought to know, rather than a nation whose schools failed so miserably and so consistently at their jobs. Would fewer people have succumbed to the siren song of isolationism in the 1930s, while Hitler and Stalin built their empires of mass murder and Mao took control of the Chinese revolutionaries? Would the triumph of the civil rights movement have come sooner and with less toil and bloodshed, and left behind fewer of the unresolved problems that still fester in our politics? Would there have been a clearer understanding of the nature of communism, meaning less denial and excuse-making for Soviet and Maoist atrocities, perhaps even leading to an earlier and more complete victory for freedom in the world? Who can say what horrors we might have avoided if our citizens had all along understood the intellectual and historical foundations of liberty?

Moreover, if the failure is so long-term, we can't attribute it to transitory phenomena like 1960s radicalism. We have to expect it to be rooted in the basic structure of our educational institutions -- whatever we're doing wrong, it's something we've been doing wrong for at least a century.

Lo and behold, when we search the empirical research for evidence of what might be causing the problem, that's exactly what we find.

It turns out schools that possess one very specific characteristic surpass all others in teaching civics. Students at these schools are regularly found to be more likely to respect the political rights of those they dislike, have better political knowledge, participate more in the political system, and volunteer more often. This is established by empirical research using top-quality methods that can isolate the influence of schools from other factors like family influence and self-selection.

Which schools are so consistently associated with better civic education? Private schools.