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Originally published Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 4:18 PM

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A national call to action on citizenship education

Despite our fractious political landscape, we can all unite and begin to build bridges around one issue that defies polarization: citizenship education, write guest columnists George Nethercutt and Richard Parker.

Special to The Times

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POLITICAL polarization in the United States hinders national progress. Consensus, painful as it is when against our respective political and policy instincts, can nonetheless yield progress and move America forward. Unyielding polarization frustrates the electorate and stifles democracy's long-term health.

Fierce division pervades on issues such as government's proper role in a free society, fair tax policies, the growing divide between rich and poor and the balance of power between Wall Street and Main Street.

The world is changing faster than ever — and America, which has been the world's largest economy since the 1890s, will become No. 2, with consequences affecting us all.

The political moderate is a fast-disappearing office holder. Louder rhetoric from the political edges offers few solutions to pressing national problems. It's too often simple-minded and extreme, driven by the need to satisfy voter "bases" and poll-driven chatter that seeks to simplify inherently complex issues.

But there's a way to engage our nation and its leaders in a dialogue to help navigate the difficult journey through the polarized chaos that paralyzes politics today.

It allows the left and the right to come together for consensus on one policy issue that defies political polarization: citizenship education.

Studies show that Americans are frightfully undereducated when it comes to knowing the story of the United States. The 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), administered by the U.S. Department of Education, revealed that fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders scored low on national testing for proficiency in history. Other national studies reveal that Americans routinely flunk standardized civic-literacy surveys.

That's bad for our education system and bad for the fabric of American society. Foreigners who must pass the immigrant citizenship test are arguably better educated about America than those of us born here.

Dr. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, testified at a White House forum on Jan. 10 about the need to move democratic learning from the margins to the core. Her testimony contributed to the report by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, titled "A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future." The report is a national call to action to encourage citizenship education.

Citizenship education can build a bridge between liberals and conservatives and yield political and policy progress because it's politically nonthreatening. If Americans know our national story, they can better perpetuate the principles that have made America what it is today. National history can be instructive, helping us know how to avoid war or secure economic progress, civil rights and individual freedom. It's a history many Americans have in common.

It is essential learning.

This year, American voters will choose national leaders. We'll expect them to solve the daunting problems of tax fairness, economic improvement and world peace. We need our best, most informed leaders at the helm of government.

If they lead only from the far left or far right, Americans in the big middle will be left out — and the United States will drift perilously.

Renewing our knowledge and commitment to the United States by knowing its story can be a unifying cause that will advance communication on other issues. If leaders can agree on citizenship education, perhaps agreement on tax fairness and the size of America's safety net will follow. Our 2012 votes can assure such an outcome.

America has always been a nation of arguments — because democracies should be. Citizenship education won't end our arguments, but it can help inform them.

National self-knowledge and dedicated citizenship education are causes for political unity around which all Americans can rally.

George Nethercutt, left, is a Harvard Institute of Politics resident fellow and a former Republican congressman from Washington's 5th District. Economist Richard Parker teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and co-founded Mother Jones.

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