Henry  Edmondson

This October, the population of the U.S. reached 300 million. Even more, it's estimated we will top 400 million by the middle of the century. The reaction this benchmark has not been as hysterical as some expected, though there has been hand-wringing a-plenty over diminishing land, limited classrooms, ever scarcer landfills and congested traffic lanes.

Before we leave this benchmark behind, though, one more consideration is in order: How do we assimilate all these people? How do we insure that we all acquire the civic virtue to be Americans? And of what does education for citizenship consist? If we don't get the answer to these questions right, all the landfill space in the world won't help us.

U.S. growth is attributable to our inexplicable preference for dirty diapers and neighborhood soccer games over pâté de foi gras and month-long vacations for two. Immigration is also a factor, of course, especially that of the hispanoablantes who now comprise almost 14% of the population. In 2045 it will be 22%. Those of Asian descent will double to over 8% of the population by mid-century.

The educational implications are several, but what deserves our immediate attention is education for citizenship. And on that front, we are unprepared. What may be worse, in the name of tolerance and multiculturalism, we seem to have lost a sense of what civic preparation even means.

For much of our history, we've understood that critical to our formation as a nation is the proper democratic education of our native-born and naturalized citizens alike. The formation of citizens was arguably uppermost in the minds of the nation's founders, as they thought a proper civic education indispensable for a healthy nation. The letters of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin and others were filled with exchanges over the education most appropriate for the new republic.

Were they able to see the current state of our educational affairs, there is little doubt they themselves would be wringing their hands. Although almost all measurements of education today are disturbing—math scores, reading comprehension and writing—the consistently lowest of all are measures of civic and historical knowledge.

The latest in an incessant train of dismal reports comes from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Their recent extensive survey concludes that graduates of our public schools and our even our universities are spectacularly ignorant of the most basic civic knowledge. We're not talking about abstruse questions over the relative benefits of the common law tradition over the continental Napoleonic code.


Henry Edmondson

Henry T. Edmondson III is Professor of Public Administration and Political Science at the Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia.

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