I would be a liar if I said this wasn’t going to be a name-dropping post. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a meeting where there was a more diverse group powerful people assembled in one room, and I’ve been to a few meetings. The purpose of this impressive gathering was to demonstrate solidarity over one issue: the absolute imperative of returning civic education to a more prominent role in public school curriculum K-12.
National testing has awakened public officials to the increasing crisis of civic education in the United States, and they are taking steps to come together to address the issue. You can see below the interesting people that spoke at the summit, which didn’t include the influential 200 member audience.
This summit introduced the 2013 recipients of Civic Learning Awards. State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, and Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye honored students and teachers from around the state for their work with hand-on programs such as The Center for Civic Education’s, Civitas Program. My friend Terri Richmond was among those honored at the summit.
A panel discussion included an individual call to commitment from Moderator, Hon. Judith D. McConnell to high-ranking officials in: the Juvenile Court system, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Service Employees International Union Local 1000, and the California Chamber of Commerce. Each of these panelists discussed why they felt civics education was essential to be included in public education at every level.
Keynote speaker O’Connor started by stating “This country matters, to me, to you, to all of us, and frankly to the world. We live in a world that has very little guidance such as we have tried to provide in promoting the rule of law.” According to Justice O’Connor, the Rule of Law gained popularity in the 1950s when the United States and the world grappled with ways to deal with difficult situations in different parts the world besides going to war and killing one another. She credits Lewis Powell, Former Supreme Court Justice from Virginia, who became the great advocate of the “Rule of Law” and involved the other justices as well.
The purpose of civic education is to educate the people on what it means to say, “We believe in the Rule of Law,” which includes having legal principles that guide our local, state and national governments. It has to be taught to every generation, which is not a simple process because each person has to understand the concepts for themselves before they can teach them. Discussing the 2010 national assessment O’Connor quipped, “Less than 1/2 of the students knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights and it’s right there in the title.” In addition 2/3 of American youth scored below proficient on a national civics test. The Honorable Deanell Reece Tacha, Dean and Professor of Law at Pepperdine University School of Law quoted statistics found on the National Constitution Center website indicating that both adults and children know more about the sports and entertainment industries than they do about the government of their country.
O’Connor did not suggest that other subjects should be limited in order to focus on civic education, but indicated youngsters need to learn all subjects, not just one or two. She suggested that civic education can be practiced through experiences in the classroom such as student government. What prompted O’Connor to begin advocating for more civic education was when she began noticing the legislation around the country enacted to punish judges. One proposed state law indicated that the parties who lost their case in a courtroom should sue the judge.
Towards the end of her interview, O’Connor mentioned the iCivics program that came about from a national think tank with which she had been involved. Participants on the iCivics website play games and learn about the legal system.
Chief Executive Officer of the State Bar of California, Hon. Joseph Dunn, told a story about a young worker who wanted to change working conditions in a shipyard by calling a protest. Only one showed up for the protest the first day. The solitary protester was attached, beaten up, and thrown over the fence. On the third day, his friend joined him, and finally as more and more workers joined him, they ormed the Solidarity Union. That was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. Dunn’s point was that the protester who started the ball rolling did not intend to lead an earthshaking movement. This man was not trying to change the world, but just his own situation. In the same way Justice O’Connor is now calling for a return of civics education and literacy in her world at a national level.
Dunn then called State Senators, Hon. Joan Buchanan, Hon. Leland Yee, Hon Marty Block and Hon. Mark Wyland up to the podium sound the call to action at the state level in California. Yee reported that many Chinese Americans were afraid to register to vote because they didn’t want to be called for jury duty. Each of the Senators was passionate for the return of civic education to public schools.
I want to thank my friend, Dr. Michelle Herczog, who was on the planning committee of this event, for making sure that CCSS, was represented at this meeting. It was an honor to attend this special invitation summit, and as the President-Elect of California Council for the Social Studies, I was thrilled represent our organization on behalf of social studies educators across the state of California. The summit is only the start, however. There will be opposition to this movement to include more civic education for students. Teachers have many things to teach. High stakes testing does not currently test civics. Some teachers and adults remember civics as being boring. Justice O’Connor was among them. She never expected to be pushing for civic education in her old age, but that was exactly what she did at this summit, and now dedicates her life to this cause around the country.
There is a pressure to do too much with too little in public education, but we have to ask ourselves, “What is the cost of NOT educating our youth about how democracy works in the United States? What if the next generation does not grow up supporting the “Rule of Law?” Is this a price that we, as current citizens, want to pay?