“We Must Teach Civics In Our Schools”
Nothing is more important to the future of our state and country than informed young people who understand and care about our government, including the legal system. However, studies have repeatedly shown that young Americans and young Rhode Islanders do not understand how our government functions. They do not understand the balance and separation of powers. They rarely vote or participate in political organizations. They are increasingly cynical about government. We repeatedly face unwarranted and ill-informed criticism of the judiciary and the legal profession.
“The Civic Mission of Schools” a 2003 report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement finds: “Americans under the age of 25 are less likely to vote than either their older counterparts or young people of past decades. Among some of our newest citizens the situation is even worse: “….only 17 percent of young Hispanic residents said they voted in 2000-half the rate of the youth population as a whole.”
Surveys have shown that the young Americans are not as interested in political discussion and public issues as past generations were at the same point in their lives. The report found: “In 2002, only half of young people surveyed said they discussed politics, government or current events with their parents (down from 57 percent in 1998). And between 1988 and 1998, there was a substantial drop in the percentage of students who said their families received a newspaper.” As a result, many young Americans are not prepared to participate fully in our democracy now and when they become young adults. To some extent, we even see the affects in the reluctance of young lawyers to participate in bar association activities.
In Rhode Island, at least, none of this should come as a surprise because we are one of twenty-one states that do not require our students to study civics. If we do not require it in school we should not expect our citizens to understand and care about government. Without a formal education in government, people “learn” about it from television and the movies. While many of these shows make for good entertainment, very few of them accurately portray how our governmental and legal systems function.
Moreover, we should not expect our citizens to think it is important to learn civics if we do not require them to learn it. I have never taught in school but I have been a youth basketball coach. I quickly learned that children do not hear the important lessons unless you tell them and they do not think the lessons are important unless you make them practice those lessons. I found I could tell the young ladies to “box out” until I was blue in the face, but they did not appreciate it was important and they did not develop the habit until we practiced it repeatedly.
The same is true of civics. We can tell our young citizens and future voters that they should understand our government, that they should participate in civic activities and that they should vote knowledgeably but they will not do so unless we make them learn it and practice it in school. Not surprisingly, some studies have shown a direct correlation between civics education and .knowledge of government. In other words, the kids do not “pick it up in the street.” They may have heard of separation or balance of powers but they do not really understand what it is. They are unsure of the different roles of the three branches of government. They are also unsure of how the press, the so-called fourth branch, should operate.
The “Civic Mission” Report states: “Schools are the only institutions with the capacity and mandate to reach virtually every young person in the country. Of all institutions, schools are the most systematically and directly responsible for imparting citizens norms.”
The report cites studies showing that highly civic communities prosper while those around them remain poor. Providing young people the education they need to become civic leaders and active, engaged citizens helps achieve larger social and economic goals.
Besides civics classes, there are other ways to practice civics, including participating in extra-curricular activities like student government, the school newspaper or the yearbook. Studies have shown that students involved in these activities are more likely to vote later in life. Notably, young people are volunteering and participating in community activities at high rates. However, they are not getting involved in activities that prepare them to participate in government.
It is critical for the political and economic well-being of our state and our bar association that we teach civics to our children and make them practice participating in democratic processes. Without these changes, we will not have knowledgeable future voters, knowledgeable future jurors or knowledge future public officials.