Bar News - February 17, 2016
President’s Perspective: Civics Education: Keep the Republic
By: Mary E. Tenn
Popular television judge, Judith Sheindlin (aka Judge Judy), is now serving on the United States Supreme Court. Not really. But disturbingly, survey results revealed that nearly 10 percent of recent college graduates answered that the television judge was sitting on our nation’s highest court, while more than 13 percent of survey takers from the public at large had the same response. That is just one of many alarming responses.
The survey, by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, with results just released in January, posed basic multiple-choice questions about our constitutional democracy to recent college graduates and adults generally. The answers were shocking. Survey-takers, to a large degree, were unable to correctly answer fundamental questions about our government and how it functions. Results showed that there is scant understanding of history and the democratic principles upon which our country was founded.
For example, more than 60 percent of survey-takers incorrectly identified Thomas Jefferson as the Father of the Constitution, with barely 20 percent correctly identifying James Madison. College graduates fared little better, with 28 percent answering correctly. Additionally, the majority of survey-takers could not correctly identify a requirement for ratifying a proposed amendment to the Constitution, and almost 40 percent of college graduates were unaware that Congress, and not the President or the Supreme Court, has the power to declare war.
This was the latest in a series of surveys over the past decade that highlight an appreciable problem and imperative need for civics education in America. United States Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and New Hampshire’s own David Souter have been sounding the call for civics education. Justice Souter described ignorance of civics as the greatest problem facing America. Both justices recognize that civics education is not innate, and not inherited. Civics must be taught, and passed from generation to generation.
With New Hampshire emerging from the throes of the first-in-the-nation primary and unprecedented levels of school yard barbs and divisiveness in the political discourse, can we be surprised? The state of civics education impacts the nation, the political process and our world. Indeed, President Ronald Reagan emphasized that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” An uninformed citizenry is a threat to our electoral process, our democracy and our world.
At the time of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin cautioned against complacency and is credited with saying that the Republic is ours – if we can keep it. Justice Souter noted that Franklin “understood that a republic can be lost. And one way it may be lost is a kind of erosion of the minds of its people. It can be lost by citizens who lack the understanding to feel responsible for preserving the power of the constitutional government they have.”
As lawyers, we have a unique understanding of our Constitutional government and a special responsibility to help preserve it. Talk to your friends, neighbors, clients, elected officials, and anyone else who will listen about the importance of civics education. We can help inform people about our democracy, the Constitution, and the rule of law. You don’t have to wait for a formal program, task force or project to start the conversation. It is incumbent upon all of us to get talking and teaching. The time is now.
The NH Bar Association has been working hard to support civics education and has been a strong supporter of law-related education. Volunteer lawyers act as judges for “We the People,” a program in which high school students explore government, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The program culminates with a competition in which students testify in simulated congressional hearings.
In collaboration with the NH Bar Foundation, the NH Bar Association also launched Civics in Action and is working on the continuation of a civics education and awareness initiative. Civics in Action started with presentations to all Rotary clubs in the state using the “Can You Pass the Test?” platform, which asked audiences the same questions posed to those seeking US citizenship. For a comprehensive list of Bar Association law-related education initiatives and resources, go to www.nhbar.org/law-related-education.
Clearly, with these recent survey results, there is more work to be done to increase civic awareness. We are called to do more, individually and collectively, lest we have an uninformed citizenry, and a judiciary that might someday be populated by the television judges with the highest ratings. Our independent judiciary, and the citizenry we all serve, will be on the losing end of that educational failure. As lawyers, we can increase civic awareness and, working together, we can make a positive difference.