Embrace citizenship this Constitution Day
Editor’s note: This was written by Stefanie Wager, a former social studies teacher and now consultant at the Iowa Department of Education.
At the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked “Well, doctor, what have we got – a Republic or a Monarchy?” His response: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Franklin seems to have understood the fragility of a republic and his “if you can keep it” statement sounds like a challenge – a challenge we must embrace as we think about civic life in the 21st century.
We’ve all seen the television segments, where the interviewer finds a “man on street” and asks questions about our country’s history or government. Frequently, we chuckle and think how could anyone not know that? However, recent reports seem to point to the fact that this lack of knowledge is not an anomaly, but becoming a societal norm. In a recent report by the Annenberg Foundation, they found:
- 35 percent of those surveyed couldn’t identify any of the three branches of government.
- Only 38 percent could identify which party controls the House and Senate.
- Almost a third believed that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling could be appealed.
These data are not just true for adults, but for our young people as well. In the 2014 NAEP results, National Assessment of Educational Progress, (also known as the Nation’s Report Card), only 23 percent of students nationwide scored at or above proficient in civics. These statistics are startling. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “Knowledge of our system of government and our rights and responsibilities as citizens is not passed along through the gene pool. Each generation of Americans must be taught these basics. The habits of citizenship must be learned.”
At the Iowa Department of Education, we are working to promote these ideals in a variety of ways. We are in the process of revising our state’s academic standards in social studies. New standards will promote civic education and preparation for college, career, and civic life.
The Department also is working on revising programs such as We the People, a middle and high school civic education program which promotes knowledge of key Constitutional concepts.
We have partnered with entities such as the Iowa State Bar Association, the Iowa Judicial Branch, and the Secretary of State’s office to promote effective civic education about Iowa’s caucuses, registering to vote, civic holidays such as Constitution Day, and more.
We obviously want both students and adults to have basic knowledge of our history and government as a nation, but we also want both students and adults to embrace the habits of citizenship. We want to see citizens who are engaged in their communities, engaged in the political process and actively voting. Wouldn’t these ideals help us live up to Franklin’s challenge?
Many associate the habits of citizenship in the nice-to-know column and not as a quality of college and career readiness. I would argue that the habits of citizenship transcend all areas and are a key component of being successful, not only in a college or career setting, but also in life as an active citizen: making informed decisions when they vote, understanding the functions of government and lawmaking, and recognizing how they fit within the big picture.
That is what living in a republic is about. Knowing how things work. Civics.
Each September 17th, we celebrate Constitution Day. Across the country, schools are asked to teach students about the Constitution and the ideals it embodies. In 1961, President Kennedy stated the day was set up to “inspire all our citizens to keep the faith of our Founding Fathers and to carry out the ideals of United States citizenship.”
Twenty years later, President Reagan remarked, “While a Constitution may set forth rights and liberties, only the citizens can maintain and guarantee those freedoms. Active and informed citizenship is not just a right; it is a duty.”
Constitution Day is just one effort to ensure that students across Iowa and around the country are being exposed to the ideals of the Constitution and practicing those habits of citizenship. As we celebrate Constitution Day this year, I would encourage us all to think about what we can do as a state and a nation to live up to Franklin’s challenge.