Last month, the Maryland State Board of Education adopted a policy requiring students to exhibit “environmental lit- eracy” to graduate from high school. In other words, students will be required to take courses on such topics as “smart growth,” conservation and, undoubtedly, the adverse effects of climate change. In his statement announcing the change, Gov. Martin O’Malley applauded the new requirement and remarked how important it is for our graduates to have “a keen understanding of and connection to the natural world.”
Something is terribly wrong with this picture. While few would object to students being well-schooled in good environmental practices, shouldn’t we be more concerned about what our students aren’t learning? The recently released National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), issued by the Department of Education, found that just 12 percent of high school seniors tested proficient in U.S. history. According to the Maryland Higher Education Commission, of those Maryland graduates who went immediately to college, more than half (56 percent) needed to take some type of remedial courses to qualify for higher learning.
These troubling statistics reveal the absurdity of tacking on yet another academic fad to clutter our students’ basic educational needs. Students who are interested in learning about the environment should not be dissuaded from doing so, but only if they have proved their proficiency in other basic courses, such as U.S. history. Until then, we need to focus on producing well-educated citizens steeped in their country’s history and mindful of their civic responsibilities.
Here’s the reason: The American system was created 235 years ago and has survived world wars, economic calamity, social upheavals and societal progress unlike any other country in history. This evolution has occurred because Americans treasure one concept and the social ramifications attendant to it. That concept is freedom, a commodity not easily secured without generational sacrifice and historical commitment. Securing freedom has been a singular commitment of American presidents and patriots in and out of government for generations. But its perpetual continuation is not guaranteed.
If succeeding generations of Americans don’t understand the concepts of justice, individual rights, free enterprise, capitalism, sovereignty or national security, there can be no guarantee that those concepts - or others like them - will continue. That’s the importance of a proper civics education and why it’s necessary to our survival in an ever-changing world.
Numerous studies by liberal and conservative polling groups consistently show that too many Americans, particularly students, are civically illiterate. A March Newsweek story, appropriately titled “How Dumb Are We?” found that out of 1,000 American citizens, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president, 60 percent didn’t know that U.S. senators serve six-year terms, 80 percent didn’t know that Woodrow Wilson was president during World War I and 88 percent couldn’t name John Jay, Alexander Hamilton or James Madison as one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers.
So the answer to Newsweek’s question is, “pretty dumb,” it seems. Civics just is not much taught in American public schools anymore.
Some would argue that such historical information is not “necessary” to know in today’s purpose-driven culture, but this is nonsense. More than two centuries of experience in perfecting representative government, defending our rights and protecting civil liberties has enabled modern culture to develop. From computers to information technology to airplanes, it has been America’s unique blend of republican government and free-market capitalism that has allowed us to surpass all other nations in history.
To understand what America has been through in order to become “modern” requires study and learning. To ignore America’s past is to take for granted that the United States will continue as we’ve known it - a nation where all things are possible because of the freedoms we enjoy and the type of government we strive to protect.
Marylanders and education advocates from every other state who think they’re bringing “relevance” to students by forcing “environmental literacy” upon them, take note: To ignore our students’ civic education in order to advance a politically correct agenda is tantamount to societal destruction. One day, they might find that the legacy they seek to secure will be replaced by a governmental system that diminishes the freedoms they take for granted.
George Nethercutt, a former Republican congressman from Washington state and chairman of the George Nethercutt Foundation, is the author of “In Tune With America: Our History in Song” (Marquette Books, 2010).