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Why We Should Pay Attention in Civics

A middle school Civics teacher outlines why Civics education should receive more attention if our democracy is to thrive.

In November of 2009, the then-House Minority Leader (soon to be Speaker of the House) John Boehner waved a copy of the Constitution and exclaimed that the founding fathers had written these immortal words in the Preamble of our nation’s written plan of government:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

While the sentiment Boehner was expressing is a noble one, the trouble with his point is that he was wrong! These words come from the Declaration of Independence, written eleven years before the Constitution. In fact, the Declaration of Independence is not even a written plan of government. It is the document that told the world the thirteen British colonies had decided to become a sovereign nation, well, a confederation of thirteen “free and independent states.” If the leader of America’s representative legislature can’t get these facts straight, how can we expect our young people to do so as they take the reins of power?

The state of civics education in the United States shows that our efforts to educate our young people about our democratic system of government and its evolution have been woefully inadequate. Most Americans have difficulty correctly identifying the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Moreover, it seems Americans are woefully ignorant on most matters of government such as the structure of the three branches and the relationship of the Federal government to the states. Many American students as well as adults can’t name the legal protections of the Bill of Rights. 

It seems that most Americans rely on the media for their understanding of American government, global economics, and the place of the United States in the global community. Nevertheless, American politics has become increasingly polarized as reflected in the ideologies of leading media outlets such as Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left. As the debate becomes louder, it is incumbent on our education system to produce a citizenry that can cut through the spin of the 24-hour cable news networks to evaluate and discern the truth effectively.

Civics education does not get the same level of importance in today’s high tech economy as Math and Science. As a social science, Civics is given short shrift for subjects that might make America more competitive against education-leaders such as China, India, and Japan. But if the United States is to remain a leader of the world in the area of democratic ideals and the protection of human rights, both in domestic and foreign policy, the education system must devote some resources to educating its youth in the rights and duties of its citizens as well as regarding the limits of power on those who govern. It is up to the citizens to know their rights under the Constitution, to speak out when their government has strayed from its constitutional limits, and to elect leaders who will respect those limits.

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