New Yorkers Aren't Getting A's in Civics

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Eric Lane, senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and distinguished law professor at Hofstra University School of Law, tested New Yorkers' knowledge of government and politics and found it wanting.

In a recent "report card" testing New York's civil literacy, New Yorkers didn't fare too well on the basics of federal government, let alone the concept and interpretation of the Constitution.

You don't know what you think you do

Eric Lane of the Brennan Center who authored the report said, the results were disappointing and show a failure not only in our breadth of knowledge, but also in our perception of our knowledge.

We found that [New Yorkers] thought that they ought to know a lot, they all believed that it was important for the maintenance of democracy to know a lot, but in the end they didn't know very much at all and this is a serious problem.

Lane said, it isn't just about the history of our government, it's about applying that history and understanding the role it plays today.

Take something that you often talk about; the health care debate. How does anybody know what they're talking about when they're talking about the filibuster? Or state suing? Or congressional power? So this absence of information, of education, it's not that people are stupid, it's that they're not being educated. This isn't a question of someone's genetics, it's what they're learning or not learning in schools and the point is you can't really understand or really meaningfully participate in politics without this and people are dropping out.

58 percent of New Yorkers questioned in this study were not even able to name one of the two current U.S. Senators of New York.

What were the framers thinking?

In one survey question, over 50 percent of New Yorkers said the framer's thought that people's religious beliefs would lead them to the right decision. Nope. That's not right, Lane said.

In fact the framers had that experience and saw that it had not worked at the time of the Declaration of Independence. The answer to that question which is still important today was that the framers thought that humans left to their own devices would be self-interested...and they designed a system to try and cool passions and to build consensus before law is changed.

Lane pointed out yet another incorrect response.

As we watch ourselves sail off to Libya or Iraq earlier or Afghanistan, 62 percent [of New Yorkers] think that the President has the power to declare war which is categorically wrong, textually wrong and not only that, it was really heavily discussed at the convention and they felt that giving the President the power to declare war would invite more war.

The Constitution was meant to curb power and build consensus, according to Lane.

It's very critical today when you try to look at people trying to get their way in Congress and the push back and the idea that you have to have consensus. It's one of the most critical things to understand about the Constitution if you're going to appreciate it, is that it's built on a very specific vision of human nature.

What's the solution to bettering civic literacy?

Lane said part of what has caused this problem are programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. In a push for better standards in math and science, social studies was the one left behind.

This is a real problem that needs a remedy. The schools have historically been responsible for it but slowly and surely they've given up that responsibility. Now, as of today, if you have children in the public schools, they will not be tested in 4th or 8th grade for social studies under the assessment program and there's even consideration of giving it up or making it optional in the 11th grade, so no testing, no teaching.

My own view is that this is a real challenge to the continuation of American democracy.

Lane said the solution doesn't just lie in formal education, though. After all, everyone who took his test for this report was already out of school. The media can also lend a hand, he said.

How about doing something simple without being embarrassing, a reminder. A filibuster is-- and just have it in the New York Times or the Daily News so people actually can engage in the story and not feel stupid about reading the story.

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