Better Civic Education Will Inform Our Children and Inspire Them to Participate
“Civic education in the United States is not good enough.” —Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter, August 2009
Our country’s future as a democracy depends on the integrity of our legal institutions, our commitment to justice and our understanding of constitutional self-government. Our children must learn those values.
Unfortunately, less than one-quarter of our nation’s eighth-graders were rated as “proficient” or better in civics and government, according to a recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. In many schools today civics is an elective or not taught at all.
For these reasons, I have made enhancing civic education throughout our country one of my highest priorities. As Justice Souter suggested at the ABA Annual Meeting last year, it is just too important to ignore. Earlier this fall, I met with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to urge that civic education be seen as a national priority, and inform him of our plans to mobilize lawyers and judges across our nation to educate young people on the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship. He was receptive to our message and has assigned a liaison to the ABA. I believe this is an important first step in what will be our long-term effort to address the nation’s lagging civics competency.
As lawyers, we have a duty to address this situation. Recognizing this, I am pleased that the ABA Board of Governors has established a 21-member Commission on Civic Education in the Nation’s Schools, and that our House of Delegates approved a policy resolution last August. It “encourages all lawyers to consider it part of their fundamental responsibility to ensure that all students experience high-quality civic learning, including the study of law, government and history.”
The new commission will serve as an advocate for civic education in our schools and promote the implementation of effective, high-quality educational programs. Its members are a diverse and distinguished group—individuals who have been active in civic education programs at the local, state and national levels.
Leading the commission are co-chairs Paulette Brown and Marna Tucker, both dedicated lawyers and longtime bar and community leaders. Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor—an inspiring champion of civic education for many years—is a special adviser to the commission. Among the members are:
• Richard Dreyfuss, Academy Award-winning actor and advocate for civic education.
• Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
• Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters.
• Richard Riley, former U.S. secretary of education.
• Marjorie O. Rendell, judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
• Margaret H. Marshall, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
The commission will organize Civics and Law Acad emies for young people ages 13 to 19 as the centerpiece of our efforts. To conduct these academies, the ABA is developing a menu of curricular models, selected from among best practices of bar association-led and other civic education projects. The ABA wants you—members of bar associations, law schools, courts, young lawyers division affiliates and other groups—to join us as sponsors of these academies in your communities and schools. The academies can be integrated into existing programs or serve as catalysts for new educational efforts.
To ensure that the ABA has up-to-date and comprehensive information and to identify those best practices, the commission is conducting a Survey of Civic Education in Schools. The survey is a means to identify the civic education activities, assets and advocacy efforts now under way by bar associations and other organizations. The commission will serve as a national information clearinghouse for these programs. Please help us make sure that the appropriate individuals and organizations complete the survey, found at abanet.org/publiced/civics.
Only through active participation will the people of this great nation better understand the separation and importance of all three branches of government, and feel empowered to protect our past and make a difference in our future. Perhaps Justice O’Connor said it best when she said, “We should remember that knowledge of our system of government is not passed on through the gene pool. Each new generation must be informed and inspired to participate. That was the original purpose of our public school system—to train young citizens.”
It’s a mission we must join together to accomplish.