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How are we preparing students for civic life? Not very well

Surveys of historical and factual knowledge about our nation are more than disappointing.

There has been lots of comment recently about the need for education to do a better job of preparing students for the workforce.

Here in Maine a study, "Making Maine Work: The Role of Maine's Public University System," published by the Maine Development Foundation, focuses on the need to better align the university system course offerings to those areas where there is most demand, in particular in the health care workforce, tourism management and engineering.

Just last week I had lunch with Corky Ellis, founder of Kepware, a successful, growing software firm in Portland. Corky has built a successful business drawing on software engineers largely hired from the University of Maine. He has a wonderful vision for taking engineering education in Maine to a whole new level.

All of this focus on better aligning our public education systems to the needs of the workplace is great. However, the purpose of education is more than simply preparing students for a job, it is also to develop good citizens.

Our Founding Fathers believed that only an educated citizenship could ensure the future of democracy. All Americans should understand something of the values on which the Republic was founded, the principles by which we are governed and the seminal events that define our history. Without such knowledge we have little basis for judging candidates and issues.

As a passionate believer in the importance of an understanding of American history and our foundational principles, I am known in our family for such things as putting pocket versions of the Constitution in Christmas stockings.

Last Christmas I sent my sons-in-law "History Strips" -- wonderful full-color illustrated panels of the years covering the founding of the country.

So it was natural that last week, when a teacher friend emailed me a civics literacy test from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, I took it, and then sent it along to my wife, daughters and sons-in-law.

This was not a particularly easy exam. In fact, the average score for the 2,508 people who took this exam back in 2008 was 44 percent, meaning the average citizen got only 15 of the 33 questions correct.

Most citizens correctly identified the Cuban Missile Crisis, knew the key phrases of the Declaration of Independence (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), understood the president was also commander in chief, and even recognized Susan B. Anthony as a principal leader of women's suffrage.

However, results trailed off significantly after that. We were pretty shaky on defining free enterprise, fiscal stimulus policy, the origins of the separation of church and state (this was something of a trick question), knowing what the Puritans were about, and knowing the topic of the Lincoln-Douglas debates (OK, I missed this one).

I am proud to report that the Bancroft family scored well above average on this quiz, led by my Canadian son-in-law. This is impressive given that most of us Americans know little of Canada, which, by the way, had a general election last week.

So how significant is all this quiz taking -- maybe more than you think. Last Thursday's New York Times had the headline: "Civics Education Called National Crisis," with a quote from former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor lamenting the results of a national civics exam given to 27,000 4th, 8th and 12th graders last year. Only about a quarter of the 4th and 8th grade students and only a fifth of 12th graders were ranked "proficient."

My final data point, I am sad to say, came from the University of Maine System study released last week by the conservative think tank, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The part of the ACTA presentation I want to focus on is from a national survey of top college seniors on history literacy.

Only 20 percent to 30 percent were able to correctly identify James Madison as father of the Constitution or Abraham Lincoln as the author of the words, "Of the people, by the people and for the people"

We certainly need better focus in our education policy on preparing students for the workplace. At the same time we should not forget that we are also preparing them to be responsible citizens.

The results of these recent surveys and assessments suggest there is much work to do on the citizenship front.

Oh, if you would like to see the results of the civics test yourself, visit this site: www.americancivicliteracy.org.

Downloadable files of the test and its answers are available there.

Anyone with 30 or more correct deserves a commendation.