Campus protesters need to learn some civics before they protest

It seems axiomatic that colleges should be about learning, not political theater. Yet the ignorance students show in every measure of history and civics also underlies the student protests that are disrupting campus life and learning around the country.  As one student protester frankly admitted, she had no idea why she was protesting and needed to be “more educated” on the issues. But it’s hard to learn much when you’re busy shouting slogans and disrupting classes. 

For starters, the history and politics of the Middle East is extraordinarily complex and not readily reduced to placards and shouts. Governments and diplomats have struggled with tough issues of national sovereignty, religious differences, disputed territory and human rights for decades. As Hillary Clinton recently observed, campus protesters “don’t know very much” about the history of the Middle East or even history in our own country. Typical is a recent study showing that the pro-Palestinian chant “from the river to the sea” is repeated by protesters who don’t even know which river or sea is in question.

Similar ignorance underlies student demands for universities to divest of investments in any companies doing business in Israel. It turns out that university endowments hold precious few shares of Israeli companies. Expanding the divestment to companies that merely do business in Israel is hardly realistic in a global economy and would rule out any ownership of stocks such as Google and McDonald’s. It seems like a little understanding of finance could be more valuable than pounding the table.

Students do not even understand the laws and principles around protesting itself. Though demanding free speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution, that provision applies only to public institutions. It certainly does not protect destruction of property or interfering with classes and university operations. Complaining about police being called to campus to arrest them, they seemingly fail to understand the whole idea of civil disobedience — that there is something so wrong that we will suffer the consequences for violating the law.

This is a microcosm of a much deeper problem we have in this country, namely that students are no longer being educated to understand American history and how their government works.  The most recent “Nation’s Report Card” concludes that only 22 percent of 8th graders (the only grade we even test anymore) are proficient in civics, a shocking 13 percent in U.S. history. No wonder then that Americans don’t know the branches of government, can’t name the rights in the First Amendment or think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court.

A big problem is that in our head-long race to compete with other countries in science and math, we have largely dropped the ball on teaching civics. Unlike an earlier time, there is almost no civics taught in grade school or middle school, leaving only a one semester high school course in most states, which is too little, too late. Worried that students find civics boring, many schools have moved to “action civics,” taking students to community meetings or encouraging them to protest, rather than learn the basics. No wonder college students feel free to protest things they don’t understand.

With increasing awareness of the fragile state of our democracy, we need to go back to teaching civics. We have it backwards when the federal government annually spends $50 per student on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and only 5 cents on civics. The best long-term investment we could make in our democracy is an all-hands effort to strengthen civic education.

David Davenport is a research fellow emeritus at the Hoover Institution. Davenport and Jeffrey Sikkenga, executive director of the Ashbrook Center, are co-authors of the new book, “A Republic If We Can Teach It: Fixing America’s Civic Education Crisis.”

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