As college students, we need to demand our civic education, and if one is not provided for us by our educational systems, we need to take the initiative to inform ourselves and become civically minded and engaged citizens.
In a Sept. 5 address to conference attendees at Boise State, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice, pointed to the current lack of civic education and civic understanding among Americans.
“Only about one third of adult Americans can name the three branches of government, let alone say what they do,” Justice O’Connor said. “Less than one third of eighth graders can identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and it’s right there in the name!”
The cornerstone of being a civically engaged American is being one who understands the way our system of government works, understands the history that brought us to where we stand as a nation today and sees their place in a democratic governance.
A civically engaged citizen understands the right of the people to determine what is good for society, to engage in creating and backing policies which seek to support overall good and to abolish institutions that do not support the best interests of citizens.
Civic understanding, across the board, from students in grade school to adult Americans, has been on the decline. Find your average college student, and they can barely formulate an answer to what a civic education is let alone explain how citizen engagement is beneficial to democracy. And that’s a sad reality.
The problem is, civic learning in our educational systems is severely lacking as of recently.
“Even the flawed civic education of our nation in the past was better than what we have today, where civics is an afterthought in the typical public school,” Justice O’Connor said. “As a result, most students today demonstrate a serious civics knowledge deficit.”
When civics is introduced in the classroom, it is most commonly done in a dry, boring and passive manner. Modern civic learning does not teach people that civics is about who we are as a citizens and how we can engage to have an impact on issues we find important.
How do students, and Americans in general, engage in the democratic process if they have little or no understanding of the topic at hand? How can democracy survive without a strong understanding of civics?
Eleanor Roosevelt was among the early proponents of civic education in school. In an essay she stated, “On the public school largely depends the success or the failure of our great experiment in government ‘by the people, for the people.’”
A strong foundation of civic learning in public education is necessary to create a community of informed, civically engaged citizens participating in our democratic government system.