Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech in March about the importance of civics education in our public schools. He said, "A foundation in civics is not a luxury but a necessity. Students today absolutely need a sense of citizenship, an understanding of their history and government, and a commitment to democratic values. They need to know their rights – and their responsibilities. Civics cannot be pushed to the sidelines in schools.”
Duncan went on to share some statistics: “Nearly two-thirds of Americans cannot name all three branches of government. Yet three in four people can name all of the Three Stooges. Less than half of the public can name a single Supreme Court justice. And more than a quarter do not know who America fought in the Revolutionary War. But more than 80 percent of Americans know Michael Jackson sang 'Beat It' and 'Billie Jean.'"
The emphasis on math, science and language arts curriculum is enough to give any civics teacher an inferiority complex. While there is a push in both New Jersey and DC to establish core curriculum content standards for civics, the challenge lies in the ability to assess learning.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) acknowledges that history is rich with facts, which can be taught and tested, but the underlying foundation of democracy and the critical thinking that comes from understanding abstracts in civics education can be difficult to assess through standardized testing.
"Baby boomers" may be the most recent generation to receive a comprehensive civics education from their parents and grandparents. Stories of hardship through war and depression left indelible memories of the patriotic ideals and intellectual properties that created our democratic heritage. The sense of civic duty shared by their parents ensured democracy would live on for at least another generation.
As time and civic virtue fade with "The Greatest Generation," the opportunity to rewrite history exists in every classroom. Teachers, too liberal or conservative, have been accused of teaching patriotic myths to unsuspecting students. In our attempts to be politically correct, and inclusive of multiculturalism and diversity, our commitment to democracy and what it means to be American can be subject to the interpretations of others.
Well-informed citizens are essential to a thriving democracy. You do not have to be a history buff to engage your children in present day civics learning activities. Merely exercising your right to vote on April 27, after educating yourself on the candidates and the issues in the Chathams, sends a strong message of civic duty to your little ones.
Interaction and fun are the keys to learning. Dinner conversations and family time can include memory games and discussions of the upcoming election, a presidential speech or proposed bill. Playing different memory games to utilize the powers of “impression, repetition and association” (IRA) and mnemonic devices can have lasting benefits over dull and uninspiring textbooks.
My father applied the rules of IRA to help the family memorize presidential Cabinet members. For example, during one of our games in 1977, we were instructed to visualize a ballpoint pen. On top of the pen, adorning the spring-release button, was a head of cauliflower. We were cautioned that this was not just any head of cauliflower; it was our neighbor Joseph’s cauliflower. We were told to visualize the pen floating in air and leaving a trail of the beautiful calligraphic words: "Health, education and welfare." People are always impressed that I can remember President Carter’s cabinet, which includes the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano.
Using IRA techniques to teach your children to memorize the offices and leaders in President Obama’s cabinet can validate the importance of knowing facts about our government.
As schools attempt to revitalize the study of civics, families can teach and inspire their children with a personalized civics program at home, thus assuring another generation will uphold the values of democracy.