Sherman Elliott, EdD, has been at Grand Canyon University since 2011 and was appointed dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences in 2014. Prior to joining GCU, he served as assistant clinical professor of secondary education and director of the Center for Civics Education at Arizona State University. Trained as an Ignatian educator, Dr. Elliott joyfully served over 11 years as a Catholic educator at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix and as a principal in the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.
Please list and describe the three branches of government.
What is the difference between your congressional representative and your state legislative representative?
What is the name of the current vice president of the U.S. and which party might consider nominating him to run for president of the U.S.?
If you were able to answer all three of these basic civic questions, congratulations are in order.
Why? Because you know more about our democracy than 65 percent of the folks who make up “We the People” of the United States.
As we celebrate Constitution Day on Sept. 17, it is remarkably important to note that the majority of school-age adolescents and the population overall, are unable to identify, describe, explain or otherwise know, the basic structure of our democracy, including the limited powers assigned to our government as well as individual protections and liberties that are the fabric of our American way of life.
How can this be? Have we forgotten that we are the inheritors of a delicately balanced contract that was signed by brave and courageous delegates after a long period of debate in the hot, sticky Philadelphia summer of 1787?
We agreed that we would be the ultimate deciders of our fate, that we would elect the government and that the government would be accountable to the same people from which they came. Fast forward 125 years and we find that perhaps this agreement is in jeopardy.
At present, our educational priorities have clearly changed as numerous research studies have confirmed that to meet the new rigorous standards for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-based learning, principals and teachers in the trenches have relegated civic education to the sidelines. This view of civics runs contrary to both the birth of our nation and the emergence of free public education.
From its very origins, public education was designed to bring learners of various classes and ethnic backgrounds together to learn the foundations of our republic and democracy. After all, for a democracy to sustain itself, the study of government cannot be relegated to the sidelines with the hope that others will play the game on our behalf.
Civic literacy, however, is not merely the purview of K-12 educators. Over the last 20 years, daily newspapers that kept folks informed of the actions of their local and state elected officials have dwindled to a paltry few as media corporations have pursued journalistic enterprises in sports and entertainment.
The culminating effect of a lack of common civic education in our society has resulted in an electorate that no longer understands the mechanics of their democracy. Without an electorate that understands the basic workings of its elected government, the U.S. Constitution as a contract of, by and for the people becomes weak and meaningless, much like the Articles of Confederation it replaced.
In the midst of this civic abyss lies a remedy. The Constitution of the U.S. provides a vehicle for fixing problems. The Constitutional framers anticipated changes to the original contract and created a process by which we the people may amend our original agreement. The time has come for all students to pass a civics-based literacy exam to receive their well-earned diplomas.
At a minimum, this would create a generation of well-informed individuals who understand the democratic origin of their country and what they must do to maintain the democracy we have cherished.
When the next civic literacy survey is administered across the land, the vast majority of the electorate would hopefully choose the correct answers:
There are three branches of government, and all those representatives in Washington, D.C. and the states work for me, for I am “We the People.”