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With the Fourth of July right around the corner, many Americans are looking forward to a day off from work, cookouts and fireworks. Yet according to a study released a year ago, four of ten can’t tell you what actually happened that day.

And even the remaining six out of ten who were given credit for getting the  “correct” answer cited by the survey got it wrong too! That’s because the study said the right answer was “the signing of the Declaration of Independence,” which didn’t actually happen that day altogether. In fact, July 4th was the day when the Constitutional Congress first approved the final wording of the document. It wasn’t signed until August 2nd. And the Congress actually decided to declare independence two days earlier, on July 2nd.

(Truth in advertising: We had to look all that stuff up, on ConstitutionFacts.Com.)

We bring all this up because the Fourth of July gives us an excuse to get on our soapboxes and complain about the lack of civics literacy in America – specifically in the area we spend our lives covering: state and local government.

The most recent data we could find about the knowledge most Americans have about their states came from a 2018 study by Johns Hopkins University (and it’s our guess that things haven’t gotten any better since then).

A few of the facts that study uncovered:

  • More than half of respondents didn’t know if their state had a constitution.

  • About three quarters didn’t know if there were special purpose districts in their state

  • About half didn’t know if their state had a one house or two-house legislature or whether it allowed ballot initiatives

  • An astounding one of three couldn’t name their governor

We’re just speculating here, but we suspect that the levels of knowledge about cities and small towns is probably somewhat better. We can’t imagine that very many adults can’t name their mayor.

But when it comes to counties, as we wrote about eight months ago, “It's long interested us to see how many well-educated friends of ours have been almost entirely ignorant of the significance of counties. This may be largely explained because many of them are from New York City, and so aren’t living in a part of the country where the word ‘county’ comes up very frequently or in Connecticut, the one state that doesn’t actually have any functional county governments at all, except for those that serve as geographic boundaries on maps.

Even notwithstanding our concerns about the lack of knowledge about state and local government, it appears that civics education generally is in a state of disrepair.

As the American Bar Association wrote about 18 months ago, The “neglect of social studies and civics is directly linked to decades-long education policies at the state and federal levels mandating testing of basic literacy (English Language Arts and math) through funding incentives. Specifically, and as a direct consequence of education policy, civic education has been chronically underfunded, both federally and locally. Currently, the federal government invests a mere 5 cents per K–12 student compared to $54 per student for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).”

So enjoy your fireworks and hotdogs, and maybe if you’re moved to do so, find yourself a young person and explain what it’s all about.


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