Our founding fathers recognized that we would only be able to maintain the democratic form of government that they established in the Constitution if we had an informed and engaged citizenry.
While an understanding of the world around us, including our government, starts at home, the founders also appreciated that schools were critical for the development of civic knowledge, skills and attitudes. “Democracy needs to be reborn in every generation and education is its midwife” declared John Dewey more than 80 years ago.
Unfortunately, this civic mission of schools was basically abandoned by the late 1960s. Civics, once taught in elementary, middle and high school classes, became limited in the majority of New Jersey school districts to one to two weeks in high school U.S. history while looking at the development of the Constitution.
The results are evident from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in Civics for the past two decades:
Only half of eighth-grade students understood that the U.S. Congress has the primary power to pass bills. Only 26% of eighth graders could explain citizen involvement. The Civic Mission of Schools, supported by the Carnegie Foundation, and iCivics, founded with the support of retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, brought this issue to the public’s attention.
In 2021, New Jersey took a giant step forward with the enactment of the “Laura Wooten” Act, which mandated that all New Jersey school districts provide a minimum of two-quarters of civics in middle school. It directed the New Jersey Center for Civic Education to provide resources and professional development for New Jersey’s teachers.
The Center has developed a curriculum guide for middle school and provided professional development for more than 1,000 New Jersey social studies teachers and supervisors. Workshops are on-going.
Voting, talking about public issues, petitioning the government, running for public office, and peaceful protests are some of the ways that change is made in a democratic society.
But, responsible public policy decision-making requires that we have an appreciation that democracy functions on the basis of civil discourse and compromise.
Instead, we have a citizenry “engaged” through polarizing broadcast and social media without civic knowledge or understanding. Civic knowledge without engagement is not sufficient. We want engagement, not apathy. But, civic engagement without civic knowledge and understanding is actually a serious threat to democracy.
The way to get back to listening to each other so that our elected representatives can make informed, responsible decisions for the common good is through civic learning, which should be ongoing.
Every week needs to be Civic Learning Week if we want to continue as a representative democracy.