Last week’s anniversary of the signing of America’s Constitution provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the health of our democracy, both on how far we have come and on the work that remains to be done.
We face many challenges as a nation. Energy independence, health care, a war on terrorism, improving our competitiveness in the global marketplace, serious issues that demand serious answers.
While our leaders have an obligation to address all these challenges, the responsibility cannot lie with them alone. Our students are America’s future leaders, and – more importantly – America’s future citizens. What can we do to instill in them the habits of engaged and informed citizenship?
One answer lies in civic education. Over 40 state constitutions mention the preparation of an enlightened citizenry as the reason for establishing public school systems, and our schools affect more citizens on a daily basis than any other institution. By teaching civics to every student, our future citizens will acquire the knowledge and dispositions that self-government demands.
The 2006 National Civics Assessment demonstrated that we must do better preparing our youth for citizenship when it revealed that less than a fifth of high school seniors could explain how citizen participation benefits democracy. If students don’t understand why participation matters, how can we be surprised at how many passive citizens there are?
While until the 1960s most high schools offered three civics courses, today students only take a single, sometimes optional course. Recent education policies have exacerbated this trend, with three-quarters of schools reporting a decrease in the amount of time spent on civics.
Teaching students about government, history, and the importance of citizen engagement responds to challenges to our democracy. While civic learning is becoming an afterthought of our educational system, circumstances demand that it be restored as a cornerstone of our educational system in order to protect the integrity of our democracy.
The more citizens are engaged in politics – from running for school board to meeting with state legislators to volunteering on a presidential campaign to voting – the less opportunity moneyed interests have to fill the vacuum. A democracy of activist citizens is the only way we can ensure government heeds the voice “We the People.”
Civics also helps students develop the critical thinking skills that make them more discerning consumers of news. When our fellow citizens demand more thoughtful news analysis and less sensationalism, the media will listen and respond. Effective civic education can help all of us to persuade the media to reemerge as a forum for debating the great issues of our time.
The third threat, incivility and hyperpartisanship, has worsened as citizens wall themselves off from those of differing opinions, receiving their news from partisan sources and only engaging in discussion with those who already share their views. Civic education provides a common base of knowledge and a shared language for speaking about American democracy.
Civic education helps students engage with others of differing views. Debates in the classroom demand that students consider the arguments on both sides of an issue. The process of deliberation that leads to reasoned conclusions is not only a vital skill for students’ own development, but it is at the heart of the process of self-government.
Preserving that process for the future ultimately lies not only with government, but also with an engaged citizenry. To ensure that every student has the knowledge and tools they need to become active citizens, we need to support schools in fulfilling their civic mission.
Here in Arizona, a group of our citizens have formed the Arizona Coalition on Civics to strengthen civic education for all of our students. The Arizona Commission on Civic Education and Civic Engagement will also soon begin its work to bring attention and focus on the need for an informed citizenry.
The anniversary of the signing of the Constitution provides an opportunity for policymakers at every level to join together in support of the civic mission of schools. Our ability to meet this challenge will not only determine the future course of education policy, but the long-term health and survival of our democracy.
Tim Bee is the Arizona Senate President. Jennifer J. Burns is chair of the Arizona House Higher Education Committee. Both are associated with the Congressional Conference on Civic Education.