“NEWSWEEK gave 1,000 Americans the U.S. Citizenship Test–38 percent failed. The country’s future is imperiled by our ignorance.

They’re the sort of scores that drive high-school history teachers to drink. When NEWSWEEK recently asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar….”

I’m a lead tutor and responsible six other tutors and the 19 students in an inner-city school. During President Day’s week, when students would be most apt to know about the history of their country, (one would only think) I had Longfellow’s collection of poems with me, and decided since I was tutoring three students at a time rather than just one, to have them read Paul Revere’s Ride.  None of the three ever heard of Longfellow, Paul Revere, knew where Old North Church is or even heard of the story. Only one knew that America fought a war for its independence from Britain. They had to be explained how far 26 miles is.  The two students in the next session were no different. These five students live within miles of those historical landmarks but  do not have even a basic  knowledge  of Boston’s significance and its link to freedom and democracy. These same ninth graders do, however, know absolutely everything about slavery in the United States and throughout the world, Martin Luther King, civil rights and the history of Haiti.

I have no explanation as to why 5 ninth graders do not know the US declared and won independence from Britain, accept to generalize,  and say that for their knowledge of geography, American history, government or civic responsibilities,  since they’re not tested on these topics in the MCAS test and there is no Civic SAT or Citizenship Test, then I have to conclude that since there is no reason to be taught these subjects,  they are glossed over. Along these lines, decades ago I worked for a company that thought before a student could graduate he should be shown how to manage money. That would include the basics such as checking and saving  accounts, balancing your account, buying your first car and signing loan papers, signing a lease and when or why to use a credit card.  However, no schools were interested and the idea was dropped.   By not giving the students a broad education with access to these topics  we limit their diversity, but worse,  we hinder their potential for progress and prosperity. Is that being fair with them? Is it honest? I say no.

Many people seem to have surrendered their critical thinking skills- some of them very well educated- yet they believe things they read on the internet, hear on talk radio or see on TV or in movies as historical and accurate when they are neither.  A college student recently told me she was hooked on the new reality show about polygamy. I was surprised and told her it may be reality but it wasn’t true because polygamy is illegal. She insisted, absolutely and stubbornly insisted it was legal because it was on a reality show. Hmmm.   An individual from Poland expressed his astonishment of how gullible Americans are because they don’t question advertising, the news, etc; but anyone who ever lived under communism quickly learned to not believe everything (or anything) they read in the news without first taking time to think about it and verify. (I’ve heard the same from Harvard students whose parents are from China)  At what point need we reach before we address this issue, or do we let ourselves slide into a nanny state where a government managed by a few, determine what is best for the majority?

Rather than regulate the internet, banks and television, (and culture as a  whole) to protect the consumer,  we should require students to understand personal finance and pass a critical thinking test before they receive a high school diploma. And before a person votes, pass a basic Citizenship Test, either verbally or written. The three qualifications, personal finance, critical thinking and civic responsibilities,  will never be required or become part of the education system, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be.

An American Renaissance

Emerson and Thoreau chafed under the reins of education at that time,  even the much revered Harvard, and from that, American Transcendentalism was born. America was soon awash with new modes of thinking, teaching  and  writing.  I look around at the writers and respected thinkers  of today and don’t see my Emerson or Thoreau; I see “the documentary work” of Michael Moore and Reality TV. To say we’re approaching a 21st century American  Renaissance is an understatement. We’re falling off a cliff and mere feet from crashing into the rocks, but I have to hope we will not hit bottom but we will instead, in the desperate act of self-preservation, make a major  adjustment, survive the crash and find ourselves in the infancy of a new and second American Renaissance.