As the nation’s record keeper, the National Archives is responsible for making the records of the U.S. Government available to the public. These records—some famous but others quite ordinary—tell the nation’s story, document the actions of government officials over the years, and confirm the rights guaranteed to individuals. They are records that deserve preservation not simply for reference purposes but for use by all interested Americans to participate in the civic process. In short, they form a vital documentary bedrock of our democracy.
An informed citizenry is at the heart of what we do—rooted in the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that ensure their rights, hold their government accountable, and tell the story of the nation. However, without a fundamental level of civic literacy, the records that we preserve and make accessible will not be understood or used effectively by the citizens we serve.
I recently read some disheartening statistics about the state of civic literacy in the United States, strengthening my resolve to improve understanding of how the government works and citizen responsibility. According to the data from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and Pew Research Center:
- Nearly 2/3 of Americans cannot name all three branches of government. (Yet three in four people can name all Three Stooges.)
- Only 29% of eligible Americans participated in the 2016 primary elections.
- Less than half of the public can name a single Supreme Court Justice. And only 15% can correctly name John Roberts as Chief Justice. (Yet 2/3 of Americans know at least one of the American Idol judges.)
- Nearly a quarter of young Americans think that a democratic form of government is very bad
- Intentionally fabricated news stories involving the 2016 presidential candidates were shared 38 million times on social media.
- Americans distrust the government at record levels and they also distrust their fellow citizens to participate in governance.
- College bound young people (about half the youth population) are much more civically involved than their non-college bound peers. Rates of voting and volunteering are at least twice as high for those who attend college.
- Students who are white get more high quality civic-learning opportunities
- Nationwide, more than 1/3 of today’s high school seniors lack even basic civics knowledge and skills.
- More than 1/4 of Americans do not know who America fought in the Revolutionary War
- 39% incorrectly stated that the Constitution gives the president the power to declare war.
Civics education is an important element of the work we do each day at the National Archives. In our efforts to increase levels of civic literacy, the National Archives continues to expand our education, communications, and public programs. Here are just a few examples of the work we are doing across the country:
The National Archives host the Nation’s most prominent speakers, scholars, educators, government officials, members and former members of Congress, Presidents, First Ladies, and Supreme Court Justices for informative and educational events and programs at locations across the country.
Professional Development for Educators
Educators can participate in both on-site and online based activities; from two-week long summer institutes to all-day workshops on using primary sources in the classroom. Our Primarily Teaching Summer Institute introduces educators to researching and using historical documents in the classroom. DocsTeach is the online tool for teaching with documents, featuring almost 10,000 facsimiles of primary sources and nearly 700 lesson plans and activities for use in classrooms.
Student and Family Programs
Events across the country include: Family festivals on Presidents Day; Teen Thursdays in New York in collaboration with the NYC Department of Education; Mighty Writers: Early Civil War Rights literacy teen summer program in Philadelphia; Sleepover activities twice a year at the National Archives building in Washington, DC; local and regional National History Day competitions; extensive partnerships with local scouting organizations, especially in the heartland of Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas; partnerships with community centers supporting underserved populations in Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, Philadelphia, New York City, and Los Angeles—all participate in civic initiatives like the National Student Mock Election, nation-wide essay contests on topics of political courage, integrity, and presidential leadership.
Center for Legislative Archives
The Center for Legislative Archives preserves and makes available to researchers the historical records of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Through its public outreach programs, the Center uses these historical records to promote a better understanding of Congress and the history of American representative government. The Center hosts professional development workshops for K-12 civics and history educators on how to make the Constitution, Bill of Rights, the legislative process, and topics in Congressional history accessible to students. Congress Creates the Bill of Rights eBook, mobile app, and online resources tells the remarkable story of the relationship between the Bill of Rights and the Constitution
- George H.W. Bush Library: Award winning distance learning programs, many of which have featured First Lady Barbara Bush and her efforts to promote literacy. Initially broadcast throughout the state of Texas, it is now national and international in scope.
- Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum: Boy Scouts of America partnership program include the Citizenship in the Nation Merit Badge and the Eisenhower Leadership Patch. Additional programs include Story Time for Pre-Schoolers and their accompanying adults; Constitution-In-Action Learning Lab, a two-hour simulation of the role of researchers and archivists.
- John F. Kennedy Library: The Kennedy Library serves as the state coordinator for the National Student/Parent Mock Election for Massachusetts
- White House Decision Centers. Students spend days preparing for and participating in a dramatic role playing exercise related to real historical events using facsimiles of the records used by the original decision makers. The Harry S. Truman Library includes decision making about ending the war against Japan, desegregating the Armed Forces, or the decision to defend South Korea. Every Presidential Library now has a similar opportunity specific to that presidency which demonstrates how decisions are made using real life example and real life documentation. The Reagan Library’s Situation Room Experience is the newest and most elaborate to date focused on the assassination attempt on the President in a situation room reassembled from the Bush 43 White House.
We will continue to expand and support civic literacy by engaging in national conversations, and pursuing collaborative opportunities with civics education projects and institutions such as iCivics, America Achieves, American Enterprise Institute, Carnegie Corporation, and the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts. By increasing understanding of how government works and the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen, we can ensure the continued and increased relevance of truly democratic access to our holdings.