<< The Body Politic

A republic–if you can keep it

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

In the past week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and former Congressman Lee Hamilton (now Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University) all weighed in on the civics crisis.

Writing for The Daily Beast, Justice O’Connor and Secretary Duncan note that “ill-informed high school students soon become ill-informed citizens.” Emphasizing the importance of civic education, the pair write that “the founders, from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, understood that informed citizens were a bulwark against tyranny and vital to a functioning democracy. When the founding fathers exited Independence Hall after drafting the Constitution, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, ‘What have we got—a republic or a monarchy?’ ‘A republic,’ Franklin replied, ‘if you can keep it.’”

An emphasis on civics is essential for young Americans today:

When done well, civics education in fact equips students with the very skills they need to succeed in the 21st century—the ability to communicate effectively, to work collectively, to hone critical questions, and to appreciate diversity. As the education professor Tony Wagner has pointed out, there is a happy “convergence between the skills most needed in the global knowledge economy and those most needed to keep our democracy safe and vibrant.”

Check out the whole article here, and visit Justice O’Connor’s online civics lab over at iCivics.

Hamilton’s op-ed makes a similar argument: Civic skills (as opposed to simply knowledge of civics) are important for all areas of life:

Citizenship requires both knowledge about government and the ability to be involved in governance. It means knowing how to identify and inform yourself about issues, explore and evaluate possible solutions, and then act to resolve problems. It demands that you know how to interact respectfully with others. And it asks that you accept responsibility for meeting your community’s and the nation’s challenges…Only by spending time with people who think differently, learning how to listen to them and to seek common ground, do we truly learn what it takes to make a diverse republic work.

Read the whole thing.