How California is dumbing down our democracy

tags: education, democracy, history, California

Max Boot, a Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. He is the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam," a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in biography.

Only 36 percent of Americans could pass a multiple-choice civics test of the kind that is administered to immigrants seeking to become citizens. Sixty percent don’t know which countries the United States fought in World War II. Fifty-seven percent don’t know how many justices serve on the Supreme Court. Only 24 percent know what Benjamin Franklin was famous for. (Hint: It wasn’t inventing the lightbulb.)

Those are just some of the dispiriting results of a national survey sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. The poll confirms that there is a national emergency of civics illiteracy, and it is getting worse: Seventy-four percent of those over age 65 could pass the citizenship exam (which requires correctly answering just six out of 10 questions), but only 19 percent of those under 45 could do so. Even getting a college degree does not guarantee a minimal knowledge of U.S. history. In surveys of college graduates commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, fewer than 20 percent could identify the Emancipation Proclamation, only 42 percent knew that the Battle of the Bulge occurred during World War II, and one-third were unaware that Franklin D. Roosevelt had introduced the New Deal. We are a democracy at risk of being too ignorant to govern ourselves.

So it is a matter of national concern that the California State University (CSU) system is on the verge of further diluting its already inadequate history and government requirements. CSU may not have as much prestige as the better-known University of California system, but it has about twice as many students. The largest four-year university system in the nation, CSU enrolls about 484,300 students, with 23 campuses and eight off-campus centers. It awards nearly half of the bachelor’s degrees in the nation’s most populous state. It is also the largest producer of teachers in the state and among the largest in the country, graduating about 6,800 K-12 teachersevery year. But how can teachers teach what they have never learned?

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