<< The Body Politic

Maintaining the Republic through Civic Learning

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

On Tuesday, the nation marked the 226th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, writing in the Sacramento Bee, argues that in order to preserve our democracy, education needs to focus on civic learning.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin famously remarked that the Founding Fathers had given us “a Republic, if you can keep it.” Cantil-Sakauye argues that the first step of maintaining our republic is educating students about their role as citizens. She writes:

To appreciate and “keep” our system of government with our rights and responsibilities as Americans, we must first learn about how government operates and our roles as citizens. That is civic learning, a fundamental responsibility of our schools. The American system of public education was founded to prepare our youth for a productive life and for informed and engaged citizenship.

Unfortunately, our nation’s schools often overlook the benefits of robust civic education, evidenced by failing scores on the NAEP Civics Exam. For instance, when the exam was last offered nationally, less than 20 percent of eighth-graders knew the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and just one-third of students could name all three branches of the federal government. Cantil-Sakauye argues that effective civic learning is not only good for the future of democracy, but also for students to develop skills crucial for the workforce.

In an effort to promote civic education, Cantil-Sakauye joined with the California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to form the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning. The task force will help define the skills, knowledge, and habits that “our students need to be informed and involved citizens and community members and make recommendations for how we can achieve these outcomes for all students in California,” she writes.