Whenever I hear the lyrics to America the Beautiful and particularly the last stanza of the second verse, “Thy liberty in law”, I am always moved. The very foundation of our form of government is based on the concept of ordered liberty embedded in our Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
As I write this article, Egypt is in unrest. Its President Morsi has just been forced to step down by the military. Egypt is not only one of the most populous countries, it has one of the longest histories of any modern state, going back to the 10th millenium BC. By contrast, the United States is only 237 years old, and yet it has had numerous transitions of presidential power without incident (save the Civil War) including the much debated election that resulted in the United States Supreme Court case of Bush v. Gore. Regardless of one’s politics, as citizens, we are uplifted by our country’s respect for the rule of law, as evidenced by the peaceful transition of power in 2000.
Although the history of democracy can be traced back to ancient Athens in the 6th centry BC, no system has so radically changed the world as has our own. Although it is not perfect, there is none better. However, many agree that our democracy is in decline and will continue to decline, if we do not educate our young people in how our system works.
I became passionate about the importance of teaching civics in the classroom several years ago when I heard Richard Dreyfuss, the actor, speak on the subject in Martha’s Vineyard. He was beginning a pilot program, hoping to use the island as a test tube. He noted that a citizen’s knowledge regarding how our government works is acquired through learning. Dreyfuss lamented that, unfortunately, our system of government is doomed to decay and destruction if we continue to fail to teach the next generation how our government works.
I asked Mr. Dreyfuss to deliver his message during our Bar’s annual meeting in June 2009, where he made his case. Many of you heard him speak. Around the same time, I learned about iCivics, founded by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2009. She developed iCivics based on her concern over the steady decline of civics education in our schools. Her program consists of a website that provides free interactive games and teaching materials on the subject for all schools. Justice O’Connor noted, “Civic knowledge is not passed down through the gene pool, it must be taught.” Her interesting teaching approach is based on the fact that today’s children are accustomed to and enjoy technology. Therefore, she chose computers and games as the vehicles for iCivics.
In an interview she said:
Games, like civics, are about navigating a system - You learn rules, make choices, and have to engage with the world in which you are playing. Games are engaging for young people. Rather than learning a dry list of facts and figures about what the president does, a student can learn about executive power by being the president in a game, making choices about what policies to support, how to conduct diplomacy, and delegating power of executive agencies. If you said the phrase, ‘delegating authority to an executive agency’ to a seventh-grader, you can imagine the look you’d get. But when they are doing it in the context of a game, it becomes both real and compelling. (See Q&A: Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor/Amplify www.amplify.com, May 10, 2013).
In Rhode Island, we only have grade span requirements for civics. There is no requirement for a civics class. Instead, the implementation of these requirements is on a piecemeal basis, district-by-district or even school-by-school. Individual teachers and administrators are responsible for how civics is taught. Most schools teach basic civics within an American History course in the 8th, 10th and 11th grades. It is broken down as: 8th Grade: American History 1620 – 1890; 10th Grade: American History 1500 – 1940; and 11th Grade: American History 1600 – present day.
So, what other programs and resources are there for teaching civics in Rhode Island? Our Bar Association sponsors and volunteer members participate in Rhode Island Law Day every May, at which lawyers and judges team up to present lively discussions on the law and how it impacts students, schools, family and friends. For Law Day, in conjunction with the Rhode Island Judiciary and the Rhode Island Law Day Committee, our Bar develops unique classroom lessons focusing on issues including the illegal downloading of music, reasonable expectation of privacy in school, search and seizure on school property, and other topics of particular interest to students. It is wonderful to see how interested and interactive the students are when they are stimulated by relevant subject matter. Our Bar also offers lessons in the law and volunteer lawyers to schools during the year through our Lawyers in the Classroom program and to adults at non-profit organizations through our Speaker’s Bureau.
In the last few years, I learned about an exciting civics education program, Generation Citizen. Founded in Providence, Rhode Island in 2008 by two Brown University students, Generation Citizen expanded dramatically beyond our borders into other states. Google it and see. It is doing wonderful work with our students. It has a very different, but effective, approach. Beginning with the premise that our democracy is at risk, but our young people can help save it if we teach them how to participate, Generation Citizen argues that traditional civics is ineffective, because it is routine and boring. Their answer is to have the students first identify and then address existing, real world, local problems they have to solve as a group, providing more meaningful civics lessons through direct student participation.
I worked with some Providence high school students on such a project. At first, I could not understand how this approach could teach civics, but I then saw the genius behind the method. Addressing a much-needed cross-walk safety project on a road in front of their school, the students had to analyze the process to achieve the implementation of their goal. Was their road federal, state or municipal? What was the proper governmental authority to approach? Should they contact someone in the legislature or on the city council? What is their argument for the societal benefit to a cross walk with a speed bump? Involving discussion, research, trial and error, the project lasted an entire year, and, at the end, the students accomplished their goal. The project clearly stimulated their participation in government and the desire to learn more.
I suggest that we all consider the need for a better, more active civics education in this country starting in our own backyard. Your thoughts?