By Marcy Rothenberg
Two days before Christmas, I was sitting in my local Starbucks, enjoying my free birthday eggnog latte and checking Facebook and Twitter posts. Two men sat down in the chairs across from me and started talking about Congress.
Man number one: “Yeah, but a bunch of them are gonna be out of office next year.”
Man number two: “Why would you say that?”
Man number one: “Because a bunch are up for election and they’re gonna lose.”
Man number two: “Well, there’s an election, but I don’t think a BUNCH of them are running…”
Man number one: “Yeah, it’s a bunch.”
Sensing that man number one knew he was right but just didn’t have the key facts at his disposal, I chimed in. “He’s right,” pointing to man number one. “All of the House members and a third of the Senate are up for election every two years.”
Man number one smiled, “See?! She’s right. It’s a bunch!”
Man number two, ignoring his pal, shook his head in feigned sympathy as he addressed me, “No, dear. No, no, no. That’s not right.”
Me: “Yes, it is. Every two years, all of the House and a third of the Senate.”
Man number two: “No, no, no! You’re WRONG.”
Me, firmly: “No, I KNOW this.”
Man number two, condescendingly: “What are you, a…political science professor or something?”
Me (while silently noting his mansplaining): “Well as a matter of fact, my graduate work was in political science and journalism – political campaign strategy and messaging. And I taught.”
Man number two: “Where?”
Man number two: “Oh…”
As I stood up and started for the door, Man Number One pleaded, “Hey, don’t leave!”
But I was done. Suddenly, grocery shopping seemed a far more satisfying pursuit than educating a grown man on basic facts he should have learned in elementary school.
Fifth grade, to be precise. As a friend of mine – a now-retired elementary school principal – shared later, that’s when U.S. curriculum should cover basic government structure.
“Should” being the operative term.
“I subbed most of my first year in LAUSD,” she continued, “and had a standing lesson for days when no lesson plan was left for me. This lesson worked pretty much for grades 2 through 6, with a bit of adjustment. Basically, it was hierarchy of government: local, state and federal, covering executives and legislators. Depending on the grade level, I went into terms of office. I never found any class that really knew any of this, even in higher income areas.”
And, no, don’t just blame the LAUSD. As Buffalo, New York, resident Ralph McNall told Washington Post reporter Margaret Sullivan in a Dec. 28 interview, American news consumers “don’t know much about how government works…” McNall thinks citizens should have to take a 10-point test before being allowed to vote, “just to establish basic civics and news knowledge.”
That’s not likely to happen anytime soon. As the National Education Association reported in March 2017, “only 25 percent of U.S. students reach the ‘proficient’ standard on the national civics assessment,” despite the fact that all 50 states require some form of civics or government instruction in high school and 90 percent of students take at least one civics class.
And, the NEA report added, “even states that require civics education rarely take best practices into account” – focusing on rote memorization rather than guided debates, critical discussion of current events, simulations of democratic processes, or experience-based learning through community service.
Since 2015, a few states have added the requirement that students pass the U.S. citizenship exam before they can graduate from high school. Simply put, we ask less in the way of civics and government knowledge of American students attending American government classes in American high schools than we do of immigrants who take our citizenship exam.
If we don’t expect our children to learn the basics of American civics and government, how can we expect them to be well informed – much less fully engaged – voters?
And if we don’t teach our children the basics of American civics and government, how can we rightly criticize them for not knowing whether they’re hearing the truth, or a load of propaganda, from a political source?
It’s no wonder that a sitting president declares that he has the absolute power to tell the Department of Justice what to do, whom to prosecute and for what – and that far too many of his supporters take him at his word. Neither he, nor they, ever really learned how our government works – and they clearly don’t understand the concept of separation of powers codified in our Constitution.
I walked out of Starbucks that day feeling sad. Sad that two grown men – two people clearly interested in politics and government – could be so poorly educated about how their own government works. Sad that one of them thought you had to be a college professor to have learned something he should have known since grade school. And sad that too many American people don’t know any better than to believe whatever escapes the lips of one ill-educated, ill-informed, autocratically-inclined “leader.”
Marcy Rothenberg is a local writer and political activist who advocates on community, environmental and women’s issues, and whose graduate research analyzed endorsement, messaging and financing disparities in women’s and men’s political campaigns in California. As a member of then candidate Barack Obama’s National Urban and Metropolitan Policy Committee in 2008, she served as a rapid response writer for the campaign.