By George Nethercutt
George Nethercutt is a former U.S. Congressman who represented the 5th Congressional District of Washington from 1995-2005.
In 1996, George Nethercutt formed the nonprofit, independent George Nethercutt Foundation (initially the STAR Program—Students Taking Action and Responsibility), providing students with dedicated academic instruction about American history and leadership, including an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, DC to meet public officials, lobbyists and members of the national press, followed by students dedicating 60 hours of volunteer time at home.
Pictured above, American troops celebrate the 4th of July in England, 1918. Photo courtesy of the Archives of the United States via Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-1919, Series B, Air Service Activities with the French, British, and Italians, Volume 2, History of the Air Service in Great Britain. Public Domain photo.
Years ago, my parents required my two siblings and I to recite why we celebrate July 4 each year before we could ride our bikes to Herbison’s Pharmacy on Northwest Boulevard in Spokane, WA to buy caps for our cap pistols and celebrate America’s Independence Day. That’s a lasting memory that is, in some part, responsible for my devotion to civic learning for all Americans, but particularly students.
Sadly, civic learning is waning in America.
A recent YouTube video shows an interviewer asking ten random students on the campus of American University in Washington, DC to name one US Senator. Only one could, but all ten were able to correctly name the theme song from the hit movie Frozen. A few years ago, the nonprofit Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) asked 3,500 adults to answer basic multiple-choice questions about US history, government, economics and foreign policy. The average score: 49, an F. Those with public sector experience scored five percentage points worse than the average adult. That followed the ISI administering a similar test to 14,000 college freshmen and seniors from across America. All flunked except students from Harvard University, who received an underwhelming D+.
Other stories abound, from the Jaywalking segment on Jay Leno’s former late night Tonight Show to Newsweek Magazine’s survey of 1,000 Americans, to whom it administered the US Immigration test; the same one applicants for American citizenship must pass. The answers given make us slap our heads in amazement—and disgust.
When I taught a course at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government a few years ago, the nonprofit, non-partisan Foundation (see www.nethercuttcivicsfoundation.org) which bears my name, with student help, asked three questions of the 800 Americans surveyed nationally:
- Should federal elected officials understand basic US history, government, economics and foreign policy? 73 percent answered, “Yes.”
- Should American schools have as a core curriculum subject civic learning? 85 percent answered, “Yes.”
- Should all Americans be able to pass the US Immigration test? 67 percent answered, “Yes.”
Note that question 3 dropped off some from the other two percentages. That may be because those interviewed didn’t want to take the test! (Citizens can score a civics test here.)
The Nethercutt Civics Foundation is approaching the Boy Scouts of America to offer assistance to Scouts and Troops to help them earn their Citizenship in the Nation Merit Badge. With 2.4 million Boy Scouts in America, if every Scout earned that Merit Badge, America’s supply of qualified American leaders would be endless. Add in 2.6 million Girl Scouts, and the number of potential leaders more than doubles.
The Nethercutt Civics Foundation is also partnering with a Spokane School District to develop a national Senior-to-Senior program, placing high school seniors with Senior Citizens so they can learn from one another. Such a program can go a long way toward ending the age gap among Americans. The US Department of Defense has for years partnered with the Boy Scouts focused on the mission of building better Americans. It’s time to renew that partnership and engage it in earnest. At least eight states have passed laws requiring high school seniors to pass the US Immigration test in order to graduate. Another twenty states have adopted civics curriculum standards.
At Finch Grade School when I was younger, my favorite teacher, 4th Grade teacher, Joanne Miller Schwenck, was the one with whom all 4th grade boys were in love. She taught us about love of country, too. So did North Central speech teacher, Mr. Miller, who on my first day in his speech class said, “Each of you will be required to stand before the class, hands at your sides, with no notes to read. If you can’t remember what to say to an audience, how can you expect the audience to remember what you said?” Since that class, I’ve never read a speech to any audience.
Civic learning is non-partisan, engaging Americans from all political philosophies. Regardless of a person’s party preference, business leaders, historians, office holders and former officials, among others, support civic learning. Former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has developed an online teaching vehicle, iCivics, to help junior high teachers and students learn about America’s justice system. Famous author and historian David McCullough and acclaimed actor Richard Dreyfuss support civic learning, as well.
Every federal official, elected and appointed, must swear to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution. Hopefully, each has read it. It’s up to all other Americans to assure that the Constitution is read and understood by policy-makers. Citizens can hold candidates responsible for being familiar with America’s founding documents. As Judge Neil Gorsuch underwent grueling hearings on his nomination for the US Supreme Court, his recitation of answers to questions asked was a teaching tool for those listening and watching the US Senate exercise its “advise and consent” obligations under the Constitution. His answers affirmed the importance of looking back to prior precedents. If a citizen reads legal cases, one can recognize the importance of “stare decisis” and “what happened before,” relying on Supreme Court precedence to arrive at a current legal question.
Nostalgia also requires that we pay attention to what happened before. It’s essential for civic learning, too.
In Tune With America: Our History In Song
Former U.S. Congressman George R. Nethercutt Jr.’s ‘In Tune with America: Our History in Song’; melds music and words to tell a story of hope — a hope that today’s Americans will focus on the lessons of United States history: the significant events, the trials and tributions, the outstanding leaders and heroic acts, all of them part of America’s great story. This book is a gateway to better citizenship, showing how the United States has achieved its unique position in the world economically, socially and politically. It is also fun, filled with less-known parts of well-known songs, from all four verses of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’; to the lyrics of Tin Pan Alley. American music, like the American people, is rich and diverse. ‘In Tune with America’ puts readers in tune with the American dream.