No doubt there will be some who will mourn the passing of the nearly 200-year-old U.S. House page program that gave thousands of teenagers the unique experience of observing the inner workings of the Capitol — for better or worse. No longer will a small group of earnest young people have a chance to witness civics in action on the House floor. But a bigger concern should be the dearth of civics and U.S. history education nationwide that threatens to undermine democracy.
Recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress on civics found that only 27 percent of fourth-graders, 22 percent of eighth-graders and 24 percent of high school seniors could demonstrate proficiency in age-appropriate questions about how government works. The NAEP U.S. history assessment was even more disheartening, with only 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of 12th graders demonstrating proficient understanding of our country's past.
That suggests trouble for this two-century-old experiment called America, where an informed electorate is assumed to share the values upon which the nation was founded, which in turn inspired the constitutional principles of rule of law, individual rights and representational government.
Yet only 9 percent of American fourth-graders could identify Abraham Lincoln and why he is an important figure. Fewer than a third of the eighth-graders could identify an important advantage the American forces had over the British during the Revolutionary War, and only 2 percent of high school seniors could identify what social issue was addressed in the 1954 landmark desegregation case, Brown vs. Board of Education.
The results suggest the teaching of history and civics has become a victim of neglect, with recent education reforms focused on math and reading keeping students from learning about the nation's rich past and the principles that form the foundations of our government. Without such knowledge, future voters will be easier to manipulate at the ballot box, sacrificing their own self-determination in the process.
Ironically, in hyper-partisan Washington, it was a rare moment of bipartisanship between House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to agree to end the $5 million-a-year page program, noting that the Internet and e-mail left fewer documents for the pages to handle.
Perhaps the page program has passed its time, though the Senate is keeping its pages. But the premise for the program — to expose the next generation to the messy workings of democracy — is as relevant as ever for America's future. The NAEP results should be a clarion call to educators and politicians. Civics illiteracy is on the rise, posing a threat that demands a response.