When leaving Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded: “A republic, if you can keep it.” The question is how do we keep it?
Earlier this summer, I attended a naturalization ceremony at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City. It was an appropriately named place for this inspiring event. New citizens swore an oath of allegiance to our republic dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
To qualify for U.S. citizenship, these immigrants passed a civics test that covers principles of American democracy, the American system of government, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, American history and some basic civics. They’ve studied to become Americans.
Here’s a sad fact: these new Americans sometimes understand our nation’s ideals better than many whose families have been here for generations. According to the Pew Research Center, only about one-third of Americans can name the three branches of our federal government. Fewer can describe the role each branch plays in our democracy.
It is no surprise that so few people register to vote, and even less exercise their right to vote, when too few citizens understand how our government works.
Today, the 227th anniversary of the day delegates at the Constitutional Convention signed the U.S. Constitution, State Sen. Howard Stephenson and State Representative Steve Eliason are announcing at the Capitol a Utah Civics Education Initiative bill that will require high school students in Utah to pass the United States Civics Test produced by the U.S. Citizenship and Education Services — the same test every immigrant applying for U.S. citizenship must pass. Spearheaded by the Joe Foss Institute, many state legislators around the country are today announcing the same legislation in their states.
The legislation is not burdensome for schools to implement. Likewise, it is not onerous on students. In order to graduate or receive a high school equivalency certificate, students must score only 60 percent on the test. And, they may take the test as many times as necessary.
The test is not hard. It contains 100 questions about basic facts of U.S. history and civics. We elect a president for how many years? How many U.S. senators are there? Name one problem that led to the Civil War. Why does the flag have 50 stars?
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, 92 percent of immigrants who take the test pass it. When high school students in Arizona and Oklahoma took the same test, fewer than 4 percent passed. That’s unacceptable. Across the nation, our civics soul is ailing.
The Utah Civics Education Initiative is chicken soup for that ailing soul.
Every American should have at least a basic understanding of the foundational principles of our republic. Right now, 96 percent of newly eligible voters don’t.
If we want to come together and solve the pressing problems our country faces, our citizens need to understand the basics of how our government functions. If we want to keep our republic, we need to teach our children how it works and their role in participating and maintaining it as well-informed citizens.
Jonathan E. Johnson III is chairman of the board of Overstock.com and co-chair of the Civics Education Initiative in Utah.