Education is usually at the top of the list of national priorities, especially for American Presidential candidates. If one looks at the mission statement for many schools and school districts, it usually includes statements about producing or preparing students for active citizenship. The U.S. should make civics education a priority.
Civics education encompasses the study of U.S. history, government, economics and foreign policy. It can include other basic topics as well, but civic learning has been largely absent from educational discussions for years, though it’s now staging a “comeback.” Some state legislatures have passed state laws requiring high school graduates to pass the U.S. Immigration test (The one that applicants for American citizenship must pass.) This rote memory test, however is no substitute for a class in Civics. While naturalized citizens must pass a civics test, natural born citizens need not do so. Other state requirements for the study of Civics have passed, too. Virginia offers a course in Civics and Economics at the middle school level. Virginia and US Government is required in high school and a passing grade is required to receive a diploma.
One Millennial recently stated, “Why must I learn about Civics? It won’t help me get a job.”
That’s why STEM subjects (science, technology, economics and math) have received such attention in our schools, as they’re the focus of most high school education efforts: job possibilities. While the Millennial may be correct, there are plenty of CEOs and other employers though, who are of a generation that believes civic learning is important to every citizen. HowAmerica was established is not well understood by many Americans—only 26 percent of Americans in a recent national poll could name the three branches of government, let alone know what they do. Nor can most Americans understand how to navigate the federal government. Of the 1,000 Americans who took the Immigration test via Newsweek a few years ago, most flunked.
Even though the Internet is prominent and one can find answers to most fundamental questions through Google, civic learning, including a basic understanding of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, is increasingly important since it’s essential to good citizenship. America has the longest surviving constitution in history—only amended 27 times.
While many countries change their constitutions when leaders change, America has not. Instead we made the Constitution sacrosanct and a part of all legislation passed by Congress. The law requires that each bill expressly assert it is constitutionality, affirming the importance of the Constitution.
Neither the Declaration nor the Constitution are lengthy and can be read quickly. Every American citizen should read them, and should also attend the swearing-in ceremony of new citizens in a U.S. District Court held periodically. Observers will see how important American citizenship is to successful applicants.
Knowing about Civics makes us all better Americans. As state legislatures focus more on civic learning, Virginia has been a leader. The General Assembly established the legislative Commission on Civic Education whose mission is to prepare students to be successful participants in the democratic process. The State Board of Education has recognized the importance of civic education in their “Profile of a Virginia Graduate” which includes civic learning and critical thinking skills. In addition, the Board has added the third “C”, civic readiness to their goals of college and career readiness.
How the three branches of government operate at the three levels of government is essential knowledge required to become an effective citizen. Understanding how our system operates can empower the individual to make a significant difference in the decision-making process of governing. This is particularly true at the state and local level.
A quality education encompasses civic learning as well as other specialties, such as a STEM education. A truly educated citizen will know America’s roots. A knowledge of our history and its application to today’s national problems is essential to avoid making the mistakes of the past.
Our education system should have as a primary obligations instruction in what the U.S. Government does and how government at all levels works, with an emphasis on how to be active and successful participants in our democratic system. America’s education system is stronger if civic learning for all is a priority.
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George Nethercutt is a former Member of Congress from Washington state, serving for ten years on the House Appropriations Committee. He is Founder and Chair of the Nethercutt Civics Foundation, which fosters an understanding of government and public policies in young adults.
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James H. Dillard is a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates, where he chaired the House Education Committee, and a former member of the Virginia State Board of Education. He is Founder and member of the Virginia Commission on Civics Education