As an education researcher, too often I find myself compelled to report bad news: poor learning outcomes, including declining civic literacy; political indoctrination taking the place of reasoned scholarship; shout-downs depriving speakers and their intended audience their First Amendment rights; grade inflation, as well as other maladies afflicting American education.
But today I’m happy to be able to report the good news that something is being done about it.
Last year, my organization, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, launched the Richardson Youth Liberty Fellowships, a semester-long program for students who are beginning their high school junior or senior years. The purpose of the program could not be clearer, nor could it be more urgent. As program director Zach McCue states it, “The program is designed to guide students in their pursuit of sound knowledge and understanding—not political savvy. We are forging thinkers, whether they seek a future career in policy or not.”
This is a welcome initiative at a time when students’ civic knowledge is alarmingly low. I have written in the past of studies finding that most Americans would fail the U.S. Citizenship test. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation gave native-born respondents a series of multiple-choice questions based on the exam given by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Note that the Citizenship Test requires a score of only 60% to pass. But the Wilson Foundation study found that only 36% of the 1,000 citizens they surveyed could achieve a passing score.
Remarking on the survey results, Wilson Foundation President Arthur Levine observed that it would be an “error to view these findings as merely an embarrassment. Knowledge of the history of our country is fundamental to maintaining a democratic society, which is imperiled today.”
The Wilson Foundation study also reveals an age gap in civic literacy. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of senior citizen respondents passed the test. However, only 20% of those under the age of 45 could reach the needed 60% score needed to pass.
It has been said that we cannot defend what we do not understand. In contradistinction to their elders, too many students today live as strangers in a strange land whose history and institutions they have not learned. To be sure, this is not the fault of the students; rather, the responsibility lies with the failure of our schools to teach.
Rather than curse this intellectual darkness, the Richardson Youth Liberty Fellowship Program is lighting a candle. Students accepted into this year’s program (the deadline for applications is June 30) will be placed on teams and assigned specific roles and tasks to engage them in a simulated public policy think tank environment. Taught by some of the most prestigious policy experts in the Lone Star State, students will participate in policy seminars and professional development. Through their final capstone project, students will then be given the opportunity to apply these theoretical lessons to real-world policy issues, learning through this both how to think and how to do.
To accommodate high school students’ schedules, this coming year’s program runs outside of normal school hours. The first meeting is on a Saturday for a full day (August 26), and its last meeting is also for a full day (Saturday, November 4). In between, students will participate online in nine one-hour meetings on Wednesday evenings.
Concerned parents, grandparents, teachers, and friends should reach out to high school juniors and seniors and invite them to apply for the Richardson Youth Liberty Fellowship.
The cost? Thanks to the generosity of TPPF’s donors, the Fellowship is free of charge. But remember that the deadline for applications is June 30. Students can apply here.
As Thomas Jefferson warned us, any nation that expects to be “both ignorant and free” expects “what never was, and never will be.” The Richardson Youth Liberty Fellowship is determined to bring our children the knowledge on which our liberties depend.