FIRE: Lackluster High School Civic Education Contributing to Campus Chaos

Linda Davidson/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Linda Davidson/The Washington Post/Getty Images

An opinion column published by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) on Wednesday argues that poor high school civics courses are contributing to the rise of political intolerance on campus.

A Wednesday column by FIRE intern and Harvard University sophomore Katherine Hung argues that poor high school civics courses are leading to confusion about the significance of free speech on American college campuses.

In response to alarming statistics that reveal just how little high schoolers understand the theoretical, political and practical aspects of American citizenship, several state governments have introduced legislation that aims to increase the strength of civics courses around the country.

In response, state governments worked to protect civics through legislation. All 50 states now require high schoolers to complete some form of civics or social studies coursework to graduate. And as of this January, fifteen states require students to pass the U.S. Citizenship Test before receiving a diploma. An abundance of new research informs such policies, illuminating the importance of civics and the steps necessary to achieve civic literacy. In 2010, the Department of Education, followed by a coalition of U.S. Congress members in 2012, reviewed reports on improving civics from organizations like the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, respectively. A myriad of other research groups, like the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, also advise state practice.

Despite the efforts to ensure that all American public high schools offer a civics course, high schoolers are increasingly demonstrating less knowledge about the signature protections provided for American citizens by the Constitution, such as the First Amendment. According to a report from the Newseum Institute, more than 25 percent of recent college graduates could not name a single freedom granted by the First Amendment. In previous years, this figure has been as high as 15 percent, but the number continues to rise.

Nevertheless, we can’t deny that some students lack critical knowledge about their rights. According to the Newseum Institute’s State of the First Amendment report, over a quarter of last year’s college graduates could not name a single First Amendment freedom. This comes as little surprise given that, in the year prior, another survey showed that 15 percent of recent graduates were unable to recognize those freedoms in a multiple choice question. Namely, they didn’t identify “freedom of speech,” “freedom of assembly,” or “right to petition the government” as a liberty protected by the First Amendment. It was in this same 2015 American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) survey that a third of our nation’s graduates failed to identify the Bill of Rights as “a group of Constitutional amendments.”

Tom Ciccotta is a libertarian who writes about economics and higher education for Breitbart News. You can follow him on Twitter @tciccotta or email him at