In order to achieve a more functional society we need to see a renaissance of civic education in our public schools. Perhaps the most egregious example of a lack of civic understanding was the insurrection at the United States Capital earlier this year. We need to create an equal playing field where everyone is taught the basics of how society is governed. It is because of a lack of civic understanding that we, as a country, find ourselves in the current state.
We know that civics are no longer taught in our high schools and continue to see the consequences throughout society. Perhaps the most stunning example of this is when people are randomly asked to name the three branches of government and a majority consistently respond: Democratic, Republican and Independent. Furthermore, people are unable to correctly identify or answer relatively simple questions about such documents as the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Concepts such as the separation of powers and the rule of law should be common knowledge, not a challenge.
I believe it is due to a lack of civic education that people feel government is out of reach and has no direct bearing on their lives. This lack of understanding combined with misinformation, social media and the use of “alternative facts,” has made it harder for the public to distinguish fact from fiction. Part of civic education is promoting civic engagement; as individuals become active the entire process becomes much less mystifying. Such participation in politics, civic groups and charities also makes individuals stakeholders.
In recent years education has primarily focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). I acknowledge that this emphasis has been pushed to prepare students with the skill set for the jobs of the future. However, I do not see an inherent conflict between teaching STEM while also emphasizing civics. The fact is that high school students in New York complete a half year course called Participate in Government (PIG) during their senior year. This is not enough; I believe we can and should do better.
The preamble of the United States Constriction begins with the phrase, “We the People.” Since our country’s founding, we have at times debated who “the people” should be. However, had we not had a fundamental understanding of our founding principles, how would women have been given the right to vote, how would African Americans have been granted access to the ballot, perhaps more importantly, years late with the removal of racist roadblocks such as litmus tests and property taxes. These changes and more were accomplished by participation in the process by those with an understanding how our society is governed.
Andrew J. Williamson