Education on the Fundamentals of Our Government and Democracy is on Life Support: We Can Help
by Rodney G. Snow
As a nation, we are facing some of the most difficult decisions that have challenged us in a long time. Resolving today’s issues requires a citizenry that understands the fundamentals of our democracy. Unfortunately, education regarding our system of government has been lacking for many years. As reported by the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics at the University of Pennsylvania, the “lack of high-quality civic education in America’s schools leaves millions of citizens without the wherewithal to make sense of our system of government.”1 While most high school graduates can name the three judges on American Idol, very few can provide you the number or the names of the Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Surveys conducted over the past decade by the Annenberg Public Policy Center resulted in the shocking findings listed below.
• Only one-third of Americans could name all three branches of government; one-third could not name any.
• Just over a third thought it was the intention of the Founding Fathers to have each branch hold a lot of power, but the President has the final say.
• Just under half of Americans (47%) knew that a 5–4 decision by the Supreme Court carries the same legal weight as a 9–0 ruling.
• Almost a third mistakenly believed that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling could be appealed.
• When the Supreme Court divides 5–4, roughly one in four [Americans] (23%) believed the decision was referred to Congress for resolution; 16% thought it needed to be sent back to the lower courts.2
On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress for civics, more than two-thirds of all American students scored below proficient.3
On the same test, less than one-third of eighth graders could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and less than a fifth of high school seniors could explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.4
Civic learning is, at its heart, necessary to preserving our system of self-government. In a representative democracy, government is only as good as the citizens who elect its leaders, demand action on pressing issues, hold public officials accountable, and take action to help solve problems in their communities.…To neglect civic learning is to neglect a core pillar of American democracy.5
What has caused this decline in civics education over the last forty or fifty years? Some say it started with the disenchantment of the government brought on by Vietnam and Watergate.6 A primary reason cited is the unprecedented pressure to raise student achievement now measured by the standardized examination of reading and mathematics.7 The acronym STEM is often applied in measuring the value of success of our public and private school systems (science, technology, engineering, and math).
The No Child Left Behind, is also sharing the blame for standardized testing in math and reading. Pressure in these trends seems to have caused education regarding democratic principles to either take a back seat or disappear altogether.
Ironically, one factor driving national standardized testing for reading and STEM is an effort to maintain pace with China. Now, there’s an idea – let’s sacrifice education on the importance of the fundamentals of our democracy and the system we have in place to check government power to stay even with or exceed a people governed by a communist dictatorship where human rights are all but nonexistent8 and free elections are effectively out of the question.9
Did you know the constitution of Cuba is all but identical to ours? Many dictatorships or governments run by the military have written constitutions similar to or patterned after the United States Constitution. Why then is our government so different than that of Cuba or other countries? The people of those nations do not understand their rights and the courts exist for the government – not the people.
A citizenry educated on the concepts of our system of government is critical to our free society. As Abraham Lincoln stated:
Let it [reverence for the laws and Constitution] be taught in schools, seminaries and in colleges; let it be written in primers, in spelling books and in almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, enforced in courts of justice. In short, let it become the political religion of the nation.
Perhaps one of the more famous quotes on this subject is that of Thomas Jefferson, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”11 In 2002, the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), in partnership with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, convened a series of meetings involving leading scholars and civic education practitioners to consider the current state of young people’s civic learning and engagement.12 The participants’ conclusions and recommendations were summarized in a 2003 report titled The Civic Mission of Schools.
The key reason the CIRCLE report suggests for our failure to provide effective and meaningful civic education is the lack of institutional commitment to formal civic education.13
Civics Education Program
In some states, civics is not taught at all in junior high or high school. In Utah, civics education is a required course at the high school level. While we are fortunate in that respect, much more could be done.
In July, the Bar Commission created the “Utah State Bar Committee on Civics Education” to work with and facilitate the Bar’s law-related education programs directed by Kathy Dryer. The co-chairs of this committee are Rich McKeown of Leavitt Partners; Christian Clinger at the Institute for Advanced Mediation and a member of the Bar Commission; and Angelina Tsu, who works as legal counsel to Zions Bank. Angelina served on the Bar Commission when she was president of the Young Lawyers Division. This committee, under the direction of its able co-chairs, developed a lesson plan for lawyers and judges to use to teach a one-hour civics course in our high schools, hopefully on a semiannual basis. The lesson course is on judicial independence. Pilot programs have been run in several of our high schools and have been well received.
This is a turnkey operation. Those of you who have already volunteered to participate in this exciting project will be provided a lesson plan you can follow and enhance. Participation will not require a lot of preparation. The lesson plan objectives are:
• To support public education by supplementing high school students’ classroom learning about civics, specifically learning about the judiciary and the rule of law, with an interactive program focusing on analytical and language art skills.
• To instill a sense of responsibility and participation, and appreciation for the rule of law in high school students, specifically graduating, soon-to-be-voting seniors.
• To enable students to identify the three branches of government and the role of each.
• To help students understand the concepts of “separation of powers,” “checks and balances,” and the role of the courts within these concepts.
• To better inform students how judges make decisions and who the court system’s other players are and what roles they play.
• To explore the concept of judicial review and the role of the third branch in examining the constitutionality of written laws and statutes.
Well over 200 lawyers have volunteered for this opportunity. If you are interested in volunteering, please contact Christy Abad at the Bar office.
Choose Law Program
We have a marvelous Bar. Our lawyers provide a great deal of service, most of which goes unheralded and unnoticed. The Bar Commission expresses its gratitude for all you do. One such project that has gone on quietly is an ABA program that has been instituted by our Young Lawyers Division under the direction of Betsy Haws of Snell and Wilmer is the “Choose Law Program.” The purpose of this program is to encourage students in middle school and high school and, in particular, underprivileged students in such schools to “choose law” early in their educational careers. Betsy and her dedicated committee of members have been visiting middle and high schools, and we thank them for their efforts.
The presenters in the “Choose Law Program” explain that lawyers are essentially everywhere in our society, performing many different and worthwhile tasks. As examples, the presenters show slides of Gandhi, Steve Young, Barack and Michelle Obama, Mitt Romney, Johnnie Cochran, and Abraham Lincoln, to name a few. The lesson emphasizes how rewarding it is to have a law degree to help yourself as well as your community. The duties and professional responsibilities of lawyers are explained in detail, including advising government officials; defending and prosecuting those charged with crimes; helping children in foster care; and enforcing human rights. The lesson ends by explaining what students need to do to become a lawyer. The following steps are emphasized:
1. Get good grades now.
2. Take the ACT and the SAT.
3. Graduate from college.
4. Take the LSAT.
5. Complete three years of law school and graduate.
6. Pass a Bar exam.
This is a program that gets students excited about the law and encourages them to get serious about their educational opportunities. Our congratulations to the Young Lawyers Division for developing and implementing this excellent program. Any lawyer who would like to participate in this program should contact Betsy Haws.
Books from Barristers
Another new and exciting Bar-sponsored program is “Books from Barristers.” It is a program initiated by Elaina Maragakis of Ray, Quinney & Nebeker. The mission of “Books from Barristers” is to provide new books to underserved children in Utah on the topics of law, government, history, and civics. The books are donated by Utah lawyers and other generous individuals and entities. The goal of “Books from Barristers” is to encourage children to read by emphasizing the importance and value of books.
Lawyers interested in participating in this program will have the choice to either donate a specific book from a selected list or make a monetary donation for the purchase of books by the program. The books will range in price from $4-$25. This program is off to a good start. Donations may be sent to the Bar office in the name of “Books from Barristers.” For additional information about “Books from Barristers,” see the article on page 47.
The Bar Commission expresses its appreciation to the co-chairs and the Committee for Civics Education, the Young Lawyers Division Choose Law Committee, and the chair and committee supporting “Books from Barristers.”
The Kids’ Court
Kids’ Court is an after school program organized and run by law students at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. Law student volunteers teach fifth and sixth grade students about civics and our justice system at after-school programs in underserved areas in and around Salt Lake City. The program is made possible through a unique partnership involving the Minority Law Caucus, Pro Bono Initiative, and the Office of the Deans – all within the S.J. Quinney College of Law. Also partnering in this important effort are the Offices of Equity and Diversity and Student Recruitment and the College of Education at the University of Utah as well as the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, the Utah Minority Bar Association, Holy Cross Ministries, Rose Park Elementary School, and Jackson Elementary School.
Students at the S.J. Quinney College of Law also volunteer to assist in coaching and judging high school students in annual Mock Trials.
A great deal of effort has gone into developing these programs, and this will add to what our law-related education program already accomplishes. There are, of course, other actions we can take to improve education on the fundamentals of our democracy. We can help elect people who support civics education and recognize its importance to the respective governing Boards. We can encourage teachers and administrators on an individual basis to take advantage of the Bar programs on civics education. We can help improve in our communities the “institutional commitment” to civics education. We can volunteer to participate in these programs and teach the importance of our three independent branches of government and the critical importance of an independent judiciary to middle school and high school students.
Thank you for recognizing and supporting this critical need.
1. Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools, 4 (Jonathan Gould ed., 2011)
2. See id.
3. See id.
4. See id. at 14.
5. See id.
6. See Donovan R. Walling, The Return of Civic Education, 89 Phi Delta Kappan 285, 286 (2007).
7. See id.
8. See, e.g., U.N. Econ. & Soc. Council, Comm’n on Human Rights, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Summary at 2, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/2006/6/Add.6 (March 10, 2006); U.N. Econ. & Soc. Council, Comm’n on Human Rights, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Report of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Summary at 2-3, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/2005/6/Add.4 (Dec. 29, 2004).
9. See also, e.g., Sharon LaFraniere, Alarmed by Independent Candidates, Chinese Authorities Crack Down, N.Y. Times, Dec. 4, 2011, at A4.
10. Lincoln, Speeches and Writings: 1832-1858, at 32-33 (Don Fehrenbacher ed., Library of America 1989).
11. Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey (1816).
12. Walling, supra, at 286.
13. See id.