Last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched the U.S. House of Representatives into a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. The gravity of the news is self-evident, yet most Americans know shockingly little about government. A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania in September found that only 39% of Americans can name all three branches of the government.
For college students today, decisions in Washington have never been more important. If USC wants to ensure that its students won’t find themselves among the 39%, then it must begin to make civics education a priority and require all of its undergraduate students to take a course on civics.
A 2012 report from the Department of Education recommended that colleges make civic learning and democratic engagement a “national priority” to help the country emerge from what it referred to as a “civic recession.” The statistics cited by the Department’s report makes such a recession readily apparent. In 2007, the U.S. ranked 139th out of 172 democracies in voter participation. From 2009 to 2010, only 10% of citizens contacted a public official.
A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that the United States trailed most developed countries in voter turnout. Another study from the Center conducted the same year found that only 23% of citizens had contacted a public official in the past year. These statistics are chilling.
Today, decisions are being made with drastic and far-reaching consequences. The officials behind these decisions are not appointed by divine mandate but are chosen by the American people.
In 2020, the people of the United States will choose a president who will set the nation’s climate agenda for the foreseeable future, tackle challenges like universal healthcare and free college and may appoint a Supreme Court justice that could cement the fate of women’s reproductive rights for a generation, among other defining issues.
If USC students are to weigh in on these issues and perform their most important civic duty — voting — then it is essential that they are intellectually equipped with the tools and knowledge necessary.
Unfortunately, in the absence of basic civics education, many students will not participate in the upcoming election. In 2016, only 16%of all voters between the ages of 18 and 29 participated. In the same vein, without a commitment by USC to civic education of its students, many will remain unaware of what a district attorney is and unaware that they will have an opportunity to vote for one next November.
USC’s mission claims that the University will continue to play a major role in the development of the nation and Southern California. If it truly hopes to achieve this, then its students must be challenged to wrestle with current events and truly familiarize themselves with the origins and aspirations of United States democracy.
Efforts and initiatives such as the Unruh Institute of Politics and the Center for the Political Future welcome developments and have truly enhanced the school’s civic ethos. Unfortunately, these groups still largely attract those already civically engaged rather than converting the politically disinterested.
USC students must receive the necessary civic education to make politically responsible and informed decisions. Without such an education, students are making some of the most important decisions of their lives on nothing more than mere hunches.
Some argue that the lack of civic knowledge in the U.S. is nothing to lose sleep over. Americans have never been known for their civic knowledge and have managed to comfortably survive.
It is true that Americans have long known little about civics or politics. It is also true that today, Americans face a $22 trillion dollar national debt, extreme political polarization, debilitating economic and social inequality and escalating rivalries with several major foreign powers.
Clearly, our national lack of civics knowledge has not served us well. It appears that a required civic course for students is long overdue.