'We the People' is at risk: Why America needs civics education

Most are familiar with the “Jaywalking” quizzes Jay Leno regularly did on the streets of Universal Studios. They often included American civics questions. The answers were often laughably pathetic.  Unfortunately, they are representative of the general citizenry’s knowledge.

According to studies byAnnenberg Public Policy Center, only about a third (38 percent) of Americans can name the three branches of America’s government (executive, legislative and judicial), much less explain what each does.

Also surprisingly, only 32 percent of Americans could correctly identify the U.S. Constitution as the supreme law of the land, according to the Xavier Center for the Study of the American Dream. According to this same study, only 32 percent of Americans knew how many U.S. Senators there were (100), and only 29 percent knew the length of a U.S. Senator’s term in office (six years).

Voter turnout for the 2014 national election was the lowest it has been since World War II according to the United States Election Project. In a country that is supposed to be thegold standard for democracy this is simply unacceptable.

Voter turnout for the 2014 national election was the lowest it has been since World War II according to the United States Election Project. In a country that is supposed to be the gold standard for democracy this is simply unacceptable.

Why is this happening? One reason is the lack of emphasis put on civics education in our educational curricula. Voters don’t vote because they don’t understand the process or the power that comes from their votes.

These jarring facts are why I have been actively involved in Utah’s successful effort to pass the American Civics Education Initiative in Utah’s recently concluded legislative session.

If you don’t know it takes four balls for a walk and three strikes for a strike out in baseball, it’s not likely you’re a baseball fan. If you don't know the basics in American civics, you’re not likely to be interested in voting.

The American Civics Education Initiative is simple in concept: Students must pass a test from the 100 basic facts of U.S. history and civics taken from the same test all potential citizens must master before becoming American citizens.

This legislation, now enacted in Utah, as well as Arizona, Idaho, North Dakota and South Dakota, allows students to take the test any time during their high school career and as many times as necessary to pass. By using this well-established test and the study materials that are already easily available online for free, this legislation has nearly no implementation costs.

Some 91 percent of immigrants applying for citizenship pass the civics test on their first try. I recently attended a citizenship swearing-in ceremony at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City (an appropriately named place for this inspiring event). New citizens swore an oath of allegiance to our Republic dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I saw firsthand how excited these new citizens were to become Americans, as well as the sense of pride they had in having passed the test. They knewtheir stuff.

Utah high school students will now be able to share in that satisfaction of accomplishment. As I travel around Utah to meet with students, I see how bright, enthusiastic and capable they are.  I hope that they are also inspired to participate in our democracy.

When leaving Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”  The question is how do we keep it?

Our republic depends on an informed, engaged citizenry. When so many of our fellow citizens don’t know how our government works — and even fewer vote — power becomes concentrated in the hands of the few. We put the bedrock concept of “We the People” at risk.

If our students don’t know how our democracy works and who we are as a people, their participation ourgovernment will continue to wane. We can’t risk that. As Representative Steve Eliason, one of the sponsors of Utah’s law, aptly said during the legislative debate, “The American Civics Education Initiative is chicken soup for our ailing civic soul.”

Utah has taken an important first step in helping bolster American civics education. Legislators across the country need to follow suit and pass similar American civics education legislation in their own states. Only then will the phrase “We the People” live up to its original intent.

Jonathan Johnson is the chairman of Overstock.com, Inc. and the co-chairman of the Civics Education Initiative in Utah.