Successive Surveys Show Low Civic Knowledge and the Impact of Civic Learning and Engagement

In the American Bar Association’s 2023 “Survey of Civic Literacy,” 70% of respondents consider public understanding of how government works to be “not very informed” (53%) or “not at all informed” (17%). Periodic measures of public civic knowledge confirm this sentiment. For example, the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual Constitution Day Civics Survey released last month shows that while 66% of respondents could name the three branches of government, 17% could not name any.

A deeper dive into the Annenberg survey reveals a scant 5% of respondents able to name all five freedoms of the First Amendment, with only speech identified by a majority (77%). Religion (40%), assembly (33%), press (28%), and petition (9%) followed. Twenty-two percent inaccurately associated the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms to the First, and 20% of those surveyed were unable to name any of the five freedoms.

Respondents also struggled to apply the First Amendment’s freedom of speech. Fifty-three percent inaccurately claimed that Facebook, a private company, “…must permit all Americans to freely express themselves on (its) pages.” The upside is that the 59% of respondents who reported taking a high school civics class focused on the Constitution were more likely to answer survey questions correctly.

The consequences of low levels of civic knowledge among the citizenry were clarified in the Institute for Citizens & Scholars’ (ICS) September 2023 survey of “The Civic Outlook of Young Adults in America.” The national survey of more than 4,000 18–24-year-olds found a strong relationship between civic knowledge and civic engagement. Respondents answered a series of questions about the constitutional design of American institutions, the Bill of Rights, and current events. Each correct answer was associated with a statistically significant increase in political engagement, including voting, volunteering, and digital content creation and sharing.

Moreover, civically engaged respondents expressed greater satisfaction with U.S. democracy, with each community engagement activity increasing satisfaction. In turn, those with high satisfaction were more likely to find conversations with those they disagree “interesting” and/or “informative.” High civic engagement also translates into increased levels of trust in government institutions.

In sum, civic knowledge yields increased civic engagement, and civic engagement activities correlate with higher levels of satisfaction with our constitutional democracy, not to mention interesting and informative conversations across political differences. However, ICS points to a curious relationship between civic knowledge and satisfaction with democracy: those with higher retrospective levels of civic education were more satisfied, but those with higher civic knowledge less satisfied.

Our take is that higher levels of civic knowledge alone will not help strengthen and sustain this grand experiment in democratic governance. Civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions undergird youth civic development. A comprehensive civic education, as articulated in CivXNow’s State Policy Menu and our federal priorities, includes direct instruction in civics paired with practices of constitutional democracy like viewpoint-diverse classroom discussions, project-based learning, and simulations of democratic processes. These successive surveys from our partners at the ABA, Annenberg, and ICS further illuminate the importance of prioritizing high-quality civic learning opportunities throughout students’ PK–20 trajectory.

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