Forsyth student: Do Americans understand and appreciate their rights?

Teen says: Too many citizens suffer from civic illiteracy about their government
Fireworks will mark July 4 celebrations throughout Georgia. 
Courtesy of Stone Mountain Park

Credit: Hand

Credit: Hand

Fireworks will mark July 4 celebrations throughout Georgia. Courtesy of Stone Mountain Park

In five days, Americans will celebrate July 4 with parades, cookouts and fireworks A rising Forsyth County high school junior suggests another way citizens can celebrate America’s independence -- learning more about their nation’s founding and their rights.

A Lambert High School student, Vinayak Menon is an accomplished orator, winning multiple national debate tournaments and the 2021 state competition for the American Legion Constitutional Oratorical Contest. Outside of speech and debate, Vinayak serves as the youth sector leader for the Forsyth County Drug Awareness Council and region officer for Georgia’s Future Business Leaders of America.

By Vinayak Menon

As a high school student, I look forward to the rites of passage before I enter adulthood – getting a driver’s license, attending graduation and most of all, registering to vote.

While the experience of waiting in a long line and casting a ballot may not seem exciting, the ability to vote is an important freedom that should be cherished. Voting is one of many liberties that can be used to promote meaningful change in one’s community. I am preparing myself now for when I can get a chance to go to the polls by frequently discussing political issues, volunteering and attending public meetings.

However, the freedoms that I enjoy today would not be possible without the creation of America’s founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These pieces of parchment laid the groundwork for a democratic republic that seeks to protect individual liberties.

Vinayak Menon

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As Independence Day approaches, it is worth asking the question – do Americans truly understand and appreciate the rights afforded to them?

Unfortunately, many Americans suffer from “civic illiteracy,” which is the lack of basic knowledge on governmental processes, political structures, and constitutional principles. A national survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that less than 40% of Americans could name all three branches of government, and more than a third of Americans could not name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The impact of this crisis extends beyond being unable to answer a few questions from a survey. Civic illiteracy has a dire impact on the public discourse as one surely cannot exercise their democratic freedoms without understanding them.

For instance, civic illiteracy significantly influences voter behavior. Unregistered or nonvoters often neglect the importance of voting in elections and lack knowledge of how the government functions. A Pew voting frequency survey found that nearly 80% of nonvoters stated that they did not understand the rules the government operates by.

Even in the state of Georgia, most measures of civic health such as volunteering and contacting elected officials are significantly lower than the national average.

You can attribute this alarming trend to many issues including the emergence of social media, growing distrust in the government, or frustration with political gridlock.

But the issue often starts in the classroom as students are often ill-equipped with the knowledge or skills to stay engaged with their government. Although Georgia requires a quarter or semester of civics education, the state does not prioritize strategies such as service learning that enable students to apply their knowledge in a real-world environment. Outside of reading a textbook or taking tests, students lack the opportunity to observe and interact with their government.

Expanding opportunities for students in Georgia is critical to improving awareness about civics. Educators should offer extracurricular activities and encourage participation in school governance such as student council as well as take students on field trips to town halls and government buildings. In the classroom, incorporating discussions about relevant political issues can promote critical thinking and an interest in civics.

In a time of divisiveness and partisanship in our nation, there is a need for improved civic education and engagement. A well-informed population of citizens is required for our democracy to continue to survive.

As Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”

The author of this piece, Vinayak Menon, is a rising junior at Lambert High School.