New Yorkers Aren't Getting A's in Civics

Monday, April 25, 2011

education, classroom, school, school supplies, class, teachers, students (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

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.

(Like the "Explainers" right here at It's A Free Country!)


Can Brian Lehrer Show listeners do better?




More in:

Comments [12]


We should have a reality show on TV on Civics.

Apr. 28 2011 01:03 PM

In closing the Constitution quiz segment Mr. Lane referred to our government as "the American democracy". Read the Constitution.

Apr. 25 2011 11:24 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

@ Al

This country is about the powerful exploiting the weak, same as always. Nobody needs a civics class to understand that, it's enshrined in nearly every law, custom and petty ordinance so you can never forget - it's in the news, on TV, radio etc.

Pretty easy math for street smart kids; who cares about intellectual parlor games, endless arguments, when you're broke/sick/hungry?

Apr. 25 2011 11:19 AM

Considering the percentage of recent immigrants (or children of recent immigrants) who constitute the the student body in NYC public schools, it is absolutely critical to make civics an integral part of the curriculum.
How else are these kids ever going to learn what this country is supposed to be about?
Fox News? Donald Hump?

Apr. 25 2011 11:10 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

I consider it a real credit to the younger generation that they see through the smoke and mirrors, hypocrisy and propaganda that constitute our national "debate" and decline to study the almost entirely fictional historical narrative taught in our schools.

It has never been more clear that justice and rights are reserved for the elites, a favor to others similarly outfitted and emanating from good "stock"... everyone else can just suck it.

Apr. 25 2011 11:08 AM
Yvette from New York

I agree with the comment that our government officials should all have to pass the test to serve. How can they swear to uphold the Constitution if they don't know what it says? There should be more coverage of this type to point out how people of all persuasions are misrepresenting the facts. And those who misrepresent it the most are those who raise the flag of the Constitution the most!

Apr. 25 2011 11:07 AM
John B from brooklyn

I dont want this guy teaching MY kids. "The purpose of the Constitution IS to create a stronger Federal Government?" NO, it WAS a reason. The Articles of Conderation created a weak national government.
But the good professor nicely spun that to make it sound like its a continuing process. Of course its bigger and stronger than any of those old dead white guys could have imagined. The good professor might have informed the audience that originally, the Bill of RIghts applied SOLELY to the Federal Government.

Apr. 25 2011 11:05 AM

Students who will not be voting soon will not be interested in constitutional education. Those who are new voters will have the most interest.
Why teach this before 12th grade? The class should lead directly to first time voter registration.

Apr. 25 2011 11:01 AM
Dk Holland from Brooklyn

Not having the schools involved in PS. This is outrageous!

This is so important.

And the biggest problem is with people of lower income. Who are the voters? And what are we doing to prepare the voters of the future if not in our public schools?

My rhetorical question is what group of people was the last to be given the vote? - go there!

Apr. 25 2011 10:58 AM
Joyce from NYC

Can we give this test to members of congress? former and current Presidents? Fox news?

Apr. 25 2011 10:57 AM
Mr. Bad from NYC

This is quite ridiculous, the rule of law has long been subject to the consent of the elite, as Howard Zinn noted in his famous book. The only thing that we can (maybe) agree on is the history and context of the Constitution and Bill Of Rights, what has been left out and kept in the official history, which is entirely irrelevant to most outside academia.

The "framers" were slave holders, elitist, sexist and hostile to every notion of a broad, liberal and fair society that we hold dear, who cares what they thought? Really?

The point of civics is help people understand how their government works, so let me make it simple, you will be taxed, you will obey or pay for it. The point of this segment is ACTUALLY to demonstrate how little say (and therefore care) the average person has in their government.

Apr. 25 2011 10:57 AM

If NY did badly, I don't want to think how FL would fare. Given the amount of people I've encountered down here who want Trump to run, I fear for this country.

Apr. 25 2011 10:46 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


About It's A Free Country ®

Archive of It's A Free Country articles and posts. Visit the It's A Free Country Home Page for lots more.

Supported by

WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public.  Learn more at


Supported by