“Excuse me, can you please take our picture?” the stranger humbly asked.

“Sure,” I replied and prepared to snap a photo of the four family members posing in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

As I raised the smartphone to eye-level, I noticed each was quietly crying.

Acknowledging my puzzlement, the man explained: “We are new Americans. We are just so happy to be here.” He later shared that his family had recently emigrated from East Asia and after a two-year-long naturalization process, they all had finally received their United States citizenship. They had traveled as a group to Philadelphia — the site of their new country’s founding — to celebrate.

The family’s lengthy assimilation had included the completion of an examination on U.S. history and civics.

Like millions of hopeful Americans before them, each was quizzed on up to 10 questions from a list of 100 potential queries that covered historical U.S. events, democratic values and government structure. Six of the 10 questions had to be answered correctly to pass.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, as of 2016, the overall national pass rate on the exam is an impressive 91 percent.

Sadly, home-grown citizens do not perform as well as their naturalizing counterparts. A 2012 survey by the Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University distributed the USCIS test to native U.S. citizens. A third of them failed.

Much literature (including my own) has marked the decline of civic education among children and young adults. Until the 1960s it was common for American high school students to have three separate courses in civics and government. But these offerings have been slashed over the ensuring decades. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education eliminated all federal funding for civics instruction. Three years later, less than a quarter of 8th graders were considered proficient in the subject, according to the National Association of Educational Progress’s report card.

Prominent political figures — including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former President Jimmy Carter — have called for a renewed focus on civics education in American classrooms.

Lost amid the advocacy for improved instruction is the fact that adults whose formal school days have long since passed are just as much in need of civic education. The Annenberg Public Policy Center surveyed more than a thousand U.S. adults in August 2016 and found that only 26 percent of respondents could correctly name all three branches of the U.S. government; 31 percent couldn’t name even one.

Ironically, while federal funding for domestic civic instruction has been abolished, the United States still spends millions of dollars each year on democracy promotion abroad through the State Department’s Agency for International Development.

As an example, in the lead-up to Kenya’s first truly free general elections since independence in 1964, USAID sponsored more than 50,000 workshops, lectures and community meetings across the nation. Before USAID’s efforts, the country had long been afflicted by tribal warfare and a rejection of national identity. State Department officials estimate that during the course of the two-year effort, 10 million Kenyans were exposed to some form of hands-on educational activity that promoted civic awareness and political open-mindedness.

Independent studies of USAID’s Kenyan intervention found that it resulted in sustained local-level civic involvement by previously unengaged citizens. In contrast to non-participants, individuals who participated were significantly more well-informed about government more cognizant of their rights, and more learned about constitutional matters than non-participants. Furthermore, program partakers reported significant increases in social tolerance of partisan opponents.

The inhabitants of the world’s oldest democracy could benefit from a refresher course modeled after our own overseas mediations. USAID has demonstrated that effective civic education does not require advanced technology but merely community workshops facilitated by local influencers. The curriculum has already been developed and the blueprint for success is in place. What America lacks is not the resources to provide civic engagement for our adult citizens but instead the will to do it.

Upon dutifully handing the camera back to the grateful family, I realized that they most likely knew more about American civics than my own household. As I walked away, I recalled these words from Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration that was approved inside the very same Independence Hall where I now stood, who wrote: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free… it expects what never was and never will be.”

Luke Fuszard is a resident of Middleton, Wis., and a former citizenship tutor through Harvard University.


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