Civics-education deficit

Page one of the original copy of the U.S. Constitution.

Page one of the original copy of the U.S. Constitution.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

The Atlantic reports that a class-action lawsuit, Cook v. Raimondo, has been filed in U.S. District Court in Providence alleging that the state has failed to provide an adequate education for many students, especially in civics education. Part of the headline of the article reads “A new federal complaint with a unique argument accuses the state of Rhode Island of failing to provide students with the skills they need to participate effectively in a democracy’’.

Rhode Island happened to be a handy locale for the suit, but very similar ones could be filed in just about any state.

Implied in all this is that our constitutional system can’t function as intended without some sort of minimum civic knowledge by the citizenry. And certainly the teaching of civics and its sibling history has grossly deteriorated in recent decades. The results can be seen in a decline in the quality of our political life, with an increase in successful demagoguery and tribalism.

The suit also reminds us of the differences in the quality of education between rich and poor districts – inequality worsened by too-heavy reliance on local property taxes, as well as by the family dysfunction more likely in low-income than higher-income places. Thus students in affluent districts are more likely to receive the tools needed to defend their interests, and the public interest, in our federal system; having affluent parents is the most important factor in students’ success in school and later. But, as I have discovered in my teaching gigs over the years, even kids in affluent public-school districts and private education in the last few years display more ignorance about how their government works, and of history and current events, than similar cohorts a half century ago.

Public education is legally a state, not a federal function, and I would guess that higher federal courts won’t want to open the can of worms that is education inequality and its relationship to widening socio-economic and political-power inequality. Still, the plaintiffs have served the public interest by making us think more about the dangerous inadequacy of civics education in our frayed quasi-democracy.

To read The Atlantic’s article, please hit this link.