Closing America's civic education deficit

Posted: September 16, 2011

By Sandra Day O'Connor

Every morning at the beginning of class, students all over America stand and place their right hands over their hearts to give the Pledge of Allegiance. Sadly, for too many kids, this will be the limit of their civic education and engagement.

At a time when our nation is making decisions about fundamental, long-term priorities - economic solvency, budget parameters, health policy, the United States' role in a volatile world, and more - too few Americans are prepared to join or benefit from the debate. Barely a third of our fellow citizens can name the three branches of government, and an equal number cannot name even one. Less than 20 percent of eighth graders know why the Declaration of Independence was written.

These failings threaten the future of our democracy. If we don't know what makes this country special and worth saving, how will we know how to safeguard its promise of freedom and opportunity? We rise and give the Pledge of Allegiance not simply to the flag, but to all the flag represents - including the heroism of the founders and subsequent defenders of the nation, the vision of the Constitution's framers, the centrality of self-governance, and the supremacy of the law and our equality under it.

Today, to mark the 224th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, I and hundreds of others will gather at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia to remember a feat that projects the best of human potential to the far corners of the world. As we cheer our nation's creation, an important report will be issued: "Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools." It confirms what we suspected: We're failing our students on civics education, and, in the process, we are setting our country up for disaster.

Our schools and teachers are being graded on how well they prepare students in math, science, and reading, but our place in the world also depends on how well our students understand their obligations as citizens. The sad trend in civic education highlighted in the report is offset by its recommendations for righting what is wrong.

Fixing blame for the situation we're in is not the point of the report. We just need to get busy fixing the problem.

We can start by transforming the way we teach civics to ensure that content is conveyed effectively and that the lessons stick. We can do this by challenging instructors in all subjects to integrate important principles and concepts into their lesson plans. Civics does not need to be relegated to an elective class that no one feels compelled to take.

We must insist that civic education begin early and continue throughout the educational experience. My website, www.icivics.org, is designed especially for grades six through nine and is meant to be engaging and effective for all young people. "Guardian of Democracy" also raises the interesting idea of requiring at least one civics course for every college student in the country.

It is never too late to learn what makes our country special and our role in protecting it. But it will be too late for our nation if we refuse to take civic education seriously.


Sandra Day O'Connor is a retired associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

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