The Case for Civic Education

The Minnesota Humanities Center was recently invited to comment on the state of civics education at the Minnesota Legislature at an informational hearing on February 6, 2020 in St. Paul.

We took the opportunity to reaffirm our belief in the National Endowment for the Humanities enabling legislation that our democracy demands wisdom and vision from its citizens.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” The words of President Thomas Jefferson still ring true today more than 200 years later.

Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that basic understanding of our government is lacking. The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania in 2015 found that only 31% of Americans could name all three branches of government and that 32% could not identify a single branch of government.

“We have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside,” stated Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in a speech to the federal judiciary last year. “In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.” As partners with educators for nearly five decades, we shared widely recognized best practices of:

  • Centering students within instruction and incorporating current and relevant local, national, and international events into class discussions,
  • Providing opportunities for students to engage in community service projects, school government and extracurricular activities that involve shared decision-making,
  • Simulating democratic processes and procedures to allow students to gain more practical understanding of our systems, and
  • Including discussions of democratic themes of justice, freedom, and equality so that norms—all people have rights, leaders are chosen by the people, leaders peacefully relinquish power after elections, government can be freely criticized without punishment, and trials must be fair— are not taken for granted.

“Civics education, like all education, is a continuing enterprise and conversation,” noted Chief Justice Roberts. “Each generation has an obligation to pass on to the next, not only a fully functioning government responsive to the needs of the people, but the tools to understand and improve it.”

Authentic conversation, collaboration, and practice— these are the hallmarks of quality civics education. Using the humanities, we convene and connect people to move toward a just society that is curious, connected, and compassionate.

The Minnesota Humanities Center will continue to collaborate with the NEH, educational institutions, foundations, and other organizations to promote civics education through community discussions, documentaries, and collaborative travelling exhibits.

We gladly accept the responsibility for the next generation to ensure that they have the tools to understand, improve, and continue the work of building a more perfect union.

Kevin Lindsey

Author: Kevin Lindsey

Kevin Lindsey is CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center.

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