Opinion: America Is Waging a Civic War

Pop quiz! Question #1: Name each of the three branches of government. Question #2: Name each of the Three Stooges. If you are reading the opinion section of The Hill, you probably nailed both questions. But a 2006 national poll conducted by Zogby found that only 42 percent of respondents could name the executive, legislative and judicial branches, while 73 percent could identify Moe, Larry and Curly by name.

More recent statistics are just as sobering. A 2015 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center revealed that one in three Americans thought that the Bill of Rights includes the “right to own your home.” But actually, that is heartening, considering that 12 percent of respondents in the survey believed it includes the “right to own a pet.”

When Newsweek asked 1,000 Americans to take the U.S. citizenship exam in 2011, more than a third failed the civics portion, and 29 percent were unable to name the vice president. According to a 2012 study by the Center for the Study of the American Dream, 85 percent of respondents did not know the meaning of the “rule of law.”We are in a state of civic crisis. The answer, some say, is promoting “civic engagement” in schools. I agree, but “civic engagement” takes different forms. At a rally in Tampa, the president of the United States incited rage at the free press. The media cameras captured the moment when some people in the crowd turned towards them, with middle fingers raised and mouths hurling obscenities. These rallies may not be civil engagements, but they are expressions of passionate civic engagement.

Our nation is not just divided. We are now in a civic war. Factions on both sides have become untethered from the values that have historically bound us as Americans. Gerrymandered congressional districts and tribalized media have pulled us even farther apart. Our trust in institutions that once brought us together — our sports teams, our places of worship, our newspapers — has diminished. The absence of national service and civic education has eroded any sense of shared aspiration.

Once we were a nation that joined together to build things. Now we are a nation in the throes of tearing things apart. When a society loses its common ground built up by agreed upon rules, shared civic virtues, and a basic awareness of how government works, it loses its cohesion. It not only drifts, it breaks into cultural tectonic plates, shifting and colliding with spectacular force, and creating an epochal new landscape.

Thankfully, there are signs of hope. The Association of Former Members of Congress recently convened a panel led by former Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.) to address our civic crisis. One panelist, Ted McConnell, executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, called for a “Sputnik moment for civic leadership.”

The irony of his statement was well taken. The last Sputnik moment, which was in the late 1950s, prioritized science, technology, engineering, and math over the “roots” of grounding students in the fundamental learning of what makes America work cohesively, respectfully and equitably.

Across America, colleges and universities are launching “civic Sputniks.” One with which I am familiar is the Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University (full disclosure: I will be teaching a course on the midterm elections there this fall). It has a powerful strategic vision to prepare students for a “lifetime of effective engagement in civic and democratic life” and helping students “develop the knowledge, skills, and values needed to address our most pressing social problems.”

Here is another model. The ability of students at Parkland High School to organize a respected movement for gun safety is partially the result of the civics courses they took. Those courses, including a comprehensive civics test at the end of 7th grade, are mandated by the Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Education Act, which the Florida state legislature adopted in 2010.

But we need to do more. We need initiatives that combine civic education with community service, so that students are not just learning but also doing. Community service not only creates shared purpose, it engenders cohesion across demographic lines. We need to grow into a broader national service commitment involving all ages.

In 2010, the Common Core State Standards Initiative prescribed K-12 student proficiency in English, math and language arts. If we do not act fast, America will lose its “common core.” If you recall, the last time that happened was in the 1860s. That would be the Civil War, for the third of college graduates who failed to place it in the correct time frame in a 2015 survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He is former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and current chairman of the Global Institute at Long Island University. You can follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael and Facebook @RepSteveIsrael.

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