read more: Boston Herald

Tomorrow we go to the polls. In Massachusetts, we will cast ballots for governor, members of Congress, attorney general, state legislators, among others.

It is the perfect time to teach our children some basic lessons about democracy. But if your kids attend public school here, it is unlikely they will receive any formal instruction – tomorrow or any day – on our government or electoral process.

Most Massachusetts elementary schools no longer teach basic civics – having long ago ditched lessons on American democracy in favor of lectures on cultural sensitivity. Rather than educate future voters about the three branches of government, the rights and duties of citizenship, the role of states, or how we elect our representatives, our schools instead spend an inordinate amount of time teaching lessons on Third World countries (Ghana is a favorite) and Native American culture.

Surprisingly, even Barack Obama’s historic candidacy in 2008 received minimal attention in the public schools. (Perhaps because giving classroom time to Obama would have meant providing equal time to John McCain).

But if few schools discussed the 2008 presidential candidates, even fewer taught actual academic units on the role of the president or the way in which we elect him. As a result, most students (even high school students) do not even know what the president does – most wrongly assume that he makes laws (a role actually reserved for the Congress). And most do not understand that a candidate can legitimately win a presidential election without receiving a majority of votes.

To be sure, Massachusetts schools are not alone. Our national failure to educate children about democracy and American government has led to widespread civics illiteracy. Surveys by the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), reveal that a stunning 76 percent of fourth-graders cannot identify the three branches of government. NAEP also found that:

53 percent of fourth-graders cannot identify the two main political parties;

35 percent of fourth-graders cannot explain the meaning of the phrase “I pledge allegiance to the flag;”

23 percent of fourth-graders don’t know what we celebrate on July 4.

Think that’s bad? Some 46 percent of 12th-graders cannot figure out a sample electoral ballot.

At the college level, the picture is no better. Fully half of incoming college freshman surveyed by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 2006 and 2007 flunked a simple test of civics and American democracy. Some 46 percent of college seniors flunked the same test. Significantly, ISI also found that students with lower levels of learning about America’s institutions and founding principles were less engaged in citizenship activities such as voting, volunteer service and political campaigns.

And what of the grownups? In 2008 ISI tested the civic literacy of 2,508 adults using questions culled from NAEP and from U.S. naturalization exams. The result? Seventy-one percent failed. The average score for college-educated adults was 59 percent.

These facts are more than alarming. They represent what Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough rightly calls a “threat to our liberty.”

What can we do about it? First, we must recognize that a basic understanding of our government and the principles upon which it was founded is necessary for effective citizenship. Second, we must insist that our schools focus their social studies curricula on civics and American democracy. And third, we must take responsibility for showing our children examples of democracy and government at work. Our children, and our country, deserve nothing less.

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