Cheers for the American Legion

The 2020 race for the White House is heating. It’s shaping up to be a referendum on America’s market-based economic system. The central question: is government or the private sector going to provide our basic products and services?

Last May, a Monmouth University Poll found most Americans say socialism is not compatible with American values, but only 4-in-10 hold a decidedly negative opinion of it.

Americans are divided into two dominant camps – 29 percent who have a positive view of capitalism and a negative view of socialism, and 30 percent who have neutral opinions of both.

With arguably the most important presidential election of this century, will Americans be able to set the political nastiness aside and make thoughtful and knowledgeable decisions based on what is really at stake – our way of life?

If our knowledge of civics – the curriculum on government and politics – is an indicator, we ought to be concerned.

According to a Center for American Progress (CAP) report, civics knowledge and public engagement are at all-time lows.

In 2018, the Annenberg Public Policy Center found only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, which was a significant decline from previous years. Not surprisingly, public trust in government was at 18 percent and voter participation reached its lowest point since 1996.

“Without an understanding of the structure of government, rights and responsibilities, and methods of public engagement, civic illiteracy and voter apathy will continue to plague American democracy,” CAP authors Sarah Shapiro and Catherine Brown wrote in February 2018.

“While the 2016 election brought a renewed interest in engagement among youth, only 23 percent of eighth-graders performed at or above the proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam, and achievement levels have virtually stagnated since 1998,” Shapiro and Brown added.

In addition, the increased focus on math and reading in K-12 education – while critical to prepare all students for success –has pushed out civics and other important subjects.

National Advancement Placement (AP) exam scores in government average 2.64, which is lower than the average AP score of all but three of the other 45 AP exams offered by high schools. Most colleges require a score of 3.0 or higher, and some demand 4.0 to qualify for college credit.

The American Legion started worrying about civics education in 1938 when Fascism worldwide was on the rise. It started a counter movement for youth, which would develop a better understanding of our system of government, and to instill in our youth a desire to preserve it.

It started Boys State, and the American Legion Auxiliary launched Girls State for high school students. In Washington, Evergreen Boys State dates back to the early 1950s and ALA Evergreen Girls State was born in 1947. The programs bring together students from across the state for a week in June.

The training is objective and centers on the structure of city, county and state governments. Operated by students elected to various offices, activities include legislative sessions, court proceedings, law-enforcement presentations, assemblies, bands, choruses and recreational programs. It culminates with elections of governor and other statewide offices. It is fun and instructional.

Unfortunately, civics summer camps take a back seat to sports, band and cheer summer programs on college campuses. While more students find robotics program more fun, having an understanding of our government is just as important.

Hopefully, the 2020 elections will be a wake-up for all of us that civics is just as essential as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), writing and reading in our K-12 schools.

Meanwhile, three cheers for the American Legion and a huge thank you.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at

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