On civics, it’s time to make sure kids get it

To prepare my fellow pre-law classmates for the Feb. 12 LSAT, I have taken the liberty of creating a practice logical reasoning question. (For those who don’t need to know what I’m talking about, count your blessings or simply try it for fun. You may realize that the legal profession is for you.)

Practice question: Theoretically, every American public school teaches its students the basics about the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. However, a recent study of high school attitudes toward the First Amendment found that more than one in three high school students said the amendment goes “too far” in the rights it guarantees. What would most help to resolve the apparent discrepancy between the teaching practices and the results of the study?

If only the answers to actual LSAT questions were this obvious: in this case, that schools aren’t truly being held accountable for the teaching of our basic freedoms. This very real study, which came out Monday and was conducted by the Knight Foundation, emphasizes the very real need for our students to receive a much higher quality civic education.

So, how has it come to pass that half of the students in the study believed that newspapers should not be published without government approval of their contents? As someone who shudders at the thought of the government having to approve my opinion column before it is published, this is indeed a frightening statistic.

Of course the argument will be made that none of this matters; these are high school students, after all. The large majority of them cannot or will not vote. When we think back to our high school days, were we really concerned with whether or not we understood what rights were afforded to us by the Constitution, or were we more worried about ‘Friday Night Lights’ and getting into college? It is certain that the latter two did probably consume our lives (especially the first of the latter two if we are from Texas).

Yet, from my own experience, in spite of the virtual duty of placing football at the top of my high school agenda, I am unequivocally grateful for having received an incredible civic education during my time there, and I can attest to the fact that it gave me a greater appreciation for our democracy. Had I not had the good fortune to be taught by an extraordinary government teacher by the name of Mr. Fleury, you probably would not be reading this column, and my participation and passion for politics and government on all levels would be nonexistent. While my passion may be deeper than others’, at the very least, civics class encouraged me to want to participate even at the simplest level, whether it was casting a vote or reading the newspaper every now and again.

But for me, government class fostered more than a personal appreciation for politics; it also encouraged me to want to persuade other young people to place a greater value on civics education and political participation. When I was president of the College Democrats, one of my goals was to have a Civic Saturday in which high school students would be brought on campus to attend panels and discussions in the hopes that they would gain a better understanding of politics. Unfortunately, our project hit roadblocks when school administrations thought that their students wouldn’t be interested in learning about civics and that teachers would be unwilling to help if the project didn’t coincide with their own curricula. If only this study had come out then, maybe the school administrations would not have thought us crazy for believing civic education so important.

I am hopeful now that they will recognize its importance, and that a Civic Saturday at Yale will come to fruition. As the Knight Foundation noted, with Bush so fervently focused on securing democracy and freedom around the world, it should be required that students understand our own freedoms. Only then will they understand why our leadership seeks to spread democracy around the world — whether or not one agrees with the tools being used to do it. How will these students be able to protect our freedoms if they don’t comprehend them?

Regrettably, considering how limited these students’ conceptions of First Amendment rights are, the foreboding idea of an authoritarian society in our own country seems all too possible. Having no knowledge of the history of our country and laws, it becomes all too easy to ignore them and reverse course.

Of course, this would be the worst-case scenario. Luckily, the Department of Education has already put into place an initiative to “provide high quality civic education curricula to elementary and secondary school students” through its “We the People: Citizen and the Constitution” program. I only hope that this program will get the funding it deserves, and that a future attitudes study will produce more favorable results. If the department ever needs a poster child to provide evidence of how civic education can be beneficial, I will gladly answer the call. That is, if my legal career doesn’t pan out.



Alicia Washington is a senior in Trumbull College. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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