By Robert A. Clifford
Clifford Law Offices
We all probably have seen the embarrassing interviews conducted by late-night talk show host Jay Leno, when he asks the most simple of questions and people simply don't know theanswers. The American Bar Association conducted its own unofficial survey last year, asking people at Millennium Park some basic civics questions. The answers are surprising:
- How many U.S. senators are in Congress?
- When was the Declaration of Independence signed?
- How many justices are on the U.S. Supreme Court? Name one of them? In jest, one person answered Dr. Seuss. Clearly not funny.
And who can forget Republican former presidential hopeful U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., earlier this year identifying New Hampshire as the "state where the shot was heard around the world." The correct answer is Massachusetts.
The cover story of the May 2011 issue of the ABA Journal tried to address "Why America's kids know so little" about civics. It reported that, according to a recent study published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based educational think tank, only one state, South Carolina, received an A for its civics programs and teaching students about American history. Most states fell in the category of "mediocre to awful" when graded in such categories of clarity and specificity, content and rigor. Illinois received a D.
At least half of all this country's high schools do not require students to take civics and only three states require that it be taught in middle school. Illinois law requires civics instruction and "character education," including teaching "American patriotism and the principles of representative government," but the implementation is left to school districts and individual schools.
Past ABA President Stephen Zack made this issue a top priority during his year in office. Zack fled Cuba as a teen during the 1961 revolution. He talked about how he carried a worn version of the old Cuban constitution, which he said was "nearly identical" to the U.S. Constitution. Zack said, "As lawyers I believe we have a fundamental responsibility to foster civic education of America's youth." I agree.
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has toured the country pushing for teaching civics in the classroom. Most recently she spoke to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary about the necessity to better educate children and adults about our country. The ABA has set up academies in various cities where lawyers teach students about the law and justice, the Constitution, rights and responsibilities, freedom and equality and American pluralism. Our youth are taught "What does it mean to be an American?" and "What does it mean to be a citizen?"
The latest offering from the ABA is the iCivics program, which educates students from fourth grade to seniors in high school about their rights, how to become an active member of their community and how their national and local governments work. ICivics is an interactive program that teaches through game-playing. Researchers at Baylor University's School of Education are monitoring the program in Waco, Texas, and will release a report soon. The end result is not only to produce better educated students, but to make them more active participatory citizens.
The Robert R. McCormick Foundation, based in Chicago, is one of the major supporters in this effort. Part of its mission is to "strengthen our civic education system to better facilitate informed and effective lifelong civic engagement." Toward that end, the foundation recently donated $1.5 million to support civic education and engagement initiatives in the Chicago area. In making the award, McCormick Foundation President and CEO David Hiller said, "Citizens who are involved in civic learning and civic engagement opportunities at a young age gain the skills and confidence they need to make a difference in their schools and communities and are more likely to continue this engagement into adulthood."
Among the on-going projects that the McCormick Foundation supports is the Freedom Express, a 45-foot-long traveling museum that offers visitors the opportunity to explore their First Amendment freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. The interactive exhibits and artifacts demonstrate what a democracy is all about and how a nation can freely exchange ideas. The Freedom Express is available free of charge to visit schools and community events in Cook County and the neighboring collar counties of DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry and Will.
As of this writing, Chicago public schools are slated to begin class on Sept. 4. Perhaps civics could be one of the first things teachers can focus on in the classroom, taking advantage of many of these free resources. Teachers can just go to iCivics.org to find the curriculum, which includes election 2012 resources.
And to test your own knowledge, go to the ABA website to see if you can answer 10 straightforward civics questions: AmericanBar.org/civics. Your answers will determine whether you decide to get more involved.