Wisconsin gets an F in teaching of civics and U.S. history.

That, according to a Wisconsin Public Radio article this summer, is the grade the Thomas B. Fordham Institute gives our school systems for both subjects.

That’s deplorable.

As the educational system has stampeded toward more testing and the advancement of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and STEAM (the same, but with art added), we have lost sight of one of the basic functions of education: to turn our children into good and well-educated citizens.

Perhaps that is why public discourse, driven by internet anonymity and fanned by social media, is more focused on SCREAM-ing instead of thoughtful discussion and the exchange of ideas.

The Fordham study said the state’s biggest flaw is that it does not require civics or U.S. history to be taught in school. Wisconsin schools require some social studies, but there is broad interpretation of how that is implemented.

There have been some efforts to turn the tide. The Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation, with which this newspaper is affiliated, created the Wisconsin Civics Games a few years ago. High school students from across the state competed and the winners in the civics and government quiz-show format advanced to Madison for the finals. Although the pandemic has put a crimp in the civics games of late, plans are underway to restore them just as education and gathering rules return to normal.

Newspapers, for all their troubles in recent years, have long carried the banner for civic engagement and played a major role in educating the citizenry. The Founding Fathers knew the importance of a free press to educate and enlighten the public and they made sure Freedom of the Press was enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

But as valuable as the games are—and it’s so uplifting to see these eager young people excited about government, public affairs and citizenship—there is a long way to go before we can say that most of our children know the basics, like how a bill becomes a law. Naturalized citizens often know more than people who grew up here.

There is some hope, however. A bill introduced last week in the state Legislature would make civics education a requirement in Wisconsin schools. Led by Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, the Assembly Bill 563 has a long list of representatives introducing it.

That is encouraging. It’s so new, it’s not clear how specific the bill would be, but the fact that the Legislature is finally paying attention to this glaring omission is encouraging.

Wisconsin, and indeed America, needs to renew its long-neglected focus on the principals of our precious and revered form of government. In recent years, vigorous and healthy debate has been overwhelmed by a tsunami of misinformation, bullying, name calling and brute-force politics.

It’s almost a sure thing that debate about the wording and implementation of this proposed statute is going to become a political football. That is part of what makes our form of government so interesting.

What is missing in recent years are words like compromise and polite discourse. It’s no coincidence that the words civics and civil are so similar. In a state where “forward” is our motto, we can only hope that improving the education of our electorate—and the electorate to be—can only create more opportunities to bring civics and civility back again.

We could sure use both right now.

Scott Peterson is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times and group editor for Adams Publishing Group’s southwest Wisconsin weekly newspapers.

Recommended for you