Back in the day, meaning Cicero’s day, being a Roman citizen was a big deal. Citizens could vote, hold office, appeal legal decisions and engage in contracts. In an age when brutality characterized the criminal justice system, citizens were exempt from torture and nearly exempt from capital punishment. The simple declaration, “I am a Roman citizen,” conveyed significant rights and responsibilities. A wise Roman knew what they were.

Today, judging by the multitudes still flocking to our borders, and despite the ebbing respect accorded us as a world power during the past four years, native-born Americans aren’t alone in prizing United States citizenship. Unfortunately, our civic knowledge falls short of our pride.

Consider a few questions immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship have to answer. Can you name the three federal branches and their responsibilities? How do we elect a president? Who’s next in line for the job after the vice president? Who has the power to declare war? How did we become a nation? What’s in the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence? Which amendments guarantee voting rights?

Could most Americans answer these questions? The U.S. Department of Education reports that, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress results, 55% of high school seniors lack even a “basic” knowledge of our history. Barely 12% are rated “proficient.” These dismal numbers haven’t changed for decades.

A government of the people, by the people, can’t afford ignorance. Jefferson warned us that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.”

Until the 1970s, civics courses were standard for most high school graduates, but by 1994, enrollment had dropped to fewer than one in 10 students. Some schools have reinstituted civics classes, and if we want students to understand the rights and duties of citizenship and how their government works, it makes sense to teach them more about it. But teaching more civics isn’t as simple as scheduling more classes that include the word in the course title.

The nationwide Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools promotes “civic learning” to equip young Americans with “the skills, knowledge and attitudes that will prepare them to be competent and responsible citizens.” CMS proponents worry that increasing numbers of Americans “are disengaging from civic and political institutions,” and young people are following the same disengaged path. To ensure students are “educated for citizenship,” CMS has outlined four goals and “six promising approaches to civic education.”

At first glance, CMS intentions, like creating “informed and thoughtful citizens,” seem commendable. Most of the goals, though, target attitudes, advocacy and general skills such as critical thinking, “group problem solving,” “protesting” and “entering into dialogue” involving “different perspectives.” Only one addresses a “grasp and appreciation of history and the fundamental processes of American democracy.”

Even the single point that mentions “instruction in government, history, law and democracy” prohibits teaching “rote facts about dry procedures” on the grounds this kind of information is likely to “alienate (students) from politics.” In other words, don’t expect them to learn too much, or they’ll lose interest.

That doesn’t sound like the kind of civic education, or citizenry, Jefferson had in mind. No, students don’t need to memorize the positions in the Cabinet or all 27 amendments, but I’m not interested in encouraging people to have a say in government if they can’t be bothered with the often less than fascinating details of how it works.

Along with Jefferson’s call to teach students “to read, to judge and to vote understandingly,” schools’ civic mission is to explain our history and how our government works. Reformers, however, counter that civic education’s primary purpose is to induce students to participate. That’s why CMS prescribes that school programs should “pursue civic outcomes” rather than concentrate on “academic performance.” It’s why CMS wants students to “participate in the management of their own classrooms.” It’s why schools are expected to require “community service” and design civics courses around “issues students find personally relevant.”

I consult my students’ interests. I encourage them to think and express their opinions. But I’m not putting them in charge in the hope that excessive, premature power will hook them into participating. Neither am I going to rely on an uninformed 14-year-old’s definition of relevance.

The first step in civic education is teaching students they aren’t the center of the universe.

As for community service, I’m not against good deeds. I was a Boy Scout and a hospital volunteer. That said, it isn’t a school’s job to require community service. CMS argues that schools need to assume this responsibility because other “nonschool institutions,” like families, churches and community groups, have “lost the capacity or will.” It’s time we recognized that schools have finite resources. We can’t do everything, we’re not good at everything and the more everything gets dumped on us, the worse we do our real job — teaching academics.

Besides, many of the service tasks students complete for graduation don’t amount to much. Going through the mandatory motions doesn’t give you a servant’s heart or equip you for meaningful citizenship.

If we want to teach students about justice, we shouldn’t put them in charge of student courts and discipline. Instead, we should show them how adults fairly and effectively administer justice in school. If we want to teach them how to govern their towns and their nation, we shouldn’t make it seem easy and fact-free. Education reform is adamant, but misguided disdain for academic content has incapacitated tomorrow’s citizenry.

I tell my students every year, each time they appear to forget it, that they are the heirs of the republic. I tell them I won’t be here forever. I tell them to look around the room because the people they see will be running things. How many, I ask, will be prepared when it’s their turn?

There’s far more to our present crisis than our national ignorance of the Constitution. Self-interest, incompetence, cowardice, deceit, mania and treachery are bringing us nearer to disaster than we realize.

Our ignorance, however, leaves us weak and susceptible to tyranny.

And tyranny, like hell, is not easily overcome.

Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

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