A friend says what others have said: many, perhaps most, Americans don’t understand the basic structure of our government. They don’t understand federalism—what should fall under the purview of the national government and what should only be a concern for the states. And they don’t understand that our national governmental powers are separated into three branches, a structure that was adopted to give us a government of checks and balances.

The friend, along with others, feels as if this basic knowledge has declined because the teaching of Civics in high schools or earlier has declined. The ACTA (American Council of Trustees and Alumni), which states that it “is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability of America’s colleges and universities,” reports that a 2016 survey found that only a quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government. An ACTA survey found that 80 percent of seniors at 55 top colleges would have earned a D or F on historical knowledge. This organization states that a reason for this lack of knowledge is that an emphasis on math and reading “has pushed out other subjects, such as civics. . . .”

I confess, however, that I am often confused about the present structure of our government even though I had a Civics course—in which I got an A (brag, brag)—and, of course, I can not only name the three branches of government but have enough historical knowledge to know who Daniel D. Tompkins was, although I confess I learned about that Vice President not from Civics but from Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street. Indeed, I was even a bit of a high school constitutional nerd having won, but not received, money from a constitutional examination.

This particular test was sponsored by the Elks Club. Service clubs were not part of the heritage of my working-class family. I knew that my town had a number of them—Optimists, Eagles, Rotarians, Elks, as well as VFW and American Legion halls. My guess is that there was some sort of pecking order among these. I thought, but was not sure, that the Rotarians were at the top of the heap. At least, that is the impression I got from a schoolteacher when I was invited to a Rotarian lunch—I guess because I was student president of the high school. This event has stayed in my mind, not because it opened a world of networking that I later developed. I was painfully shy. I talked a bit with one or two friends and immediate family members, but I was as quiet as a blue point on the half-shell (homage to Red Smith) with all others, and that certainly included those adult Rotarians who sat next to me at the lunch. What I do remember, however, is the luncheon slide show.

A doctor in the town, who was presumably a Rotarian, had done volunteer work in Vietnam. This was at a time when the U.S. commitment in Vietnam was tiny, and few gave that country much thought or could even find it on a map. I don’t know how or why the speaker went there, but he showed picture after picture of deformed children and physically damaged adults. As one disturbing image succeeded the next, I began to feel queasy having never before seen a concentrated dose of such stuff. Sweat beads popped out on my forehead. I swallowed back what started coming out of my stomach. All I could think about was that I was about to disgrace myself. Finally, it ended in what I thought was the nick of time, and I rushed, without saying anything to my table companions, for fresh air. But I digress.

I had no idea where the Elks, or more formally the Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks, stood in the town’s service-organization pecking order, but on a late winter Saturday morning of my senior high school year I went to our Elks Club. I have no idea what I had done to qualify for the state constitution test, but I remember that I had prepared by drawing on my Civics course memories, reading the Constitution the night before, and perhaps by reading about it in our encyclopedia, which was not the mindnumbing, comprehensive Encyclopedia Britannica, but an old, breezier World Book.

I went into the dark, dingy, musty Elks clubhouse and met the person who was going to drive me the hour to Milwaukee for the statewide test. I felt a bit sorry for him, whose name I certainly don’t remember. He tried to chat me up, but as I said before, I hardly talked with anyone back then, much less a strange adult. He did try to tell me how great the Elks were, as if he were laying the groundwork for recruiting me to the B.P.O.E. later in life, and how lucky I was to live in a great town like Sheboygan. I said but a few words in reply. The “conversation” did come back to me many years later. I was on a kick of reading some American authors whose reputations had declined through the years, such as John Dos Passos. The Nobel-Prize-winning Sinclair Lewis was on this list. I had heard that he had written outdated, cliché-filled novels that were almost embarrassing. I, on the other hand, found very good books. George Babbitt was not dated if you had been raised in the 1950s in a small midwestern town; it was certainly not dated if you ridden in a car with an Elks booster from Sheboygan.

(continued June 7)

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