Fresh off an election that would send him to the U.S. Senate, Tommy Tuberville was asked in November about passing legislation in a divided government.
The Republican, then senator-elect from Alabama, gave a perplexing answer that showed a remarkably weak hold on basic facts about U.S. government for someone who sought and won federal office.
“Our government wasn’t set up for one group to have all three branches of government – wasn’t set up that way,” Tuberville, a former Auburn University football coach who ousted Democratic incumbent Sen. Doug Jones, told the Alabama Daily News. “You know, the House, the Senate and the executive.”
The executive, legislative and judicial branches make up our government.
The same interview included claims that former Vice President Al Gore was president-elect for 30 days (he wasn’t) and that World War II was a battle over socialism (it was a fight against fascism).
Striking, yes, but the comments illustrate what recent studies also have shown: Americans’ grasp of civics is increasingly tenuous. Fortunately, Indiana lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb moved this year to shore up Hoosiers’ grip.
The General Assembly in March passed House Bill 1384, which incorporates civics education into the curriculum for middle schoolers. Holcomb signed the bill – a highlight of this year’s legislative session – in April, ensuring every student in the state now must take a one-semester civics course in either sixth, seventh or eighth grade.
The rule applies to all public, charter and private schools, beginning with students who start sixth grade during the 2023-24 school year.
That’s a win for Hoosier students faced more often with polarized media and misinformation driven by social media, conspiracy theorists and, sometimes, elected leaders themselves. The requirement hopefully will lead to a more informed electorate that will choose more informed leaders.
“It is always surprising to me how many people cannot accurately name the three branches of government,” bill author Rep. Anthony Cook, R-Cicero, said in a statement. “This is a glaring sign we need to do a better job educating our students earlier about how their local, state and federal government works and how they can be civically engaged in their communities.”
Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, was one of the bill’s sponsors.
Lawmakers in 2019 passed a bill aimed at civics education in high schools. That bill, which Holcomb also signed, requires schools to administer a civics test as part of the government credit required for graduation. The law doesn’t say whether the test must be passed – something Kruse had pushed for.
Purdue University announced in April the adoption of a civics literacy requirement for graduation from its West Lafayette campus, though no local colleges have a similar requirement.
A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found 26% of respondents were unable to name all three branches of government. Nearly a third of respondents couldn’t name any of the branches
The Pew Research Center has noted declining participation in community organizations and elections, particularly among young voters.
The Brookings Institution, in a policy briefing published last year, emphasized the need for civics education in schools.
“Americans’ participation in civic life is essential to sustaining our democratic form of government,” the briefing says.
It’s heartening to know lawmakers and the governor agree.