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Jewish World Review May 30, 2005/ 21 Iyar, 5765

Nat Hentoff

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Are we educating for citizenship? | Among the most deficient parts of the curricula in America's school systems is teaching students why they are Americans — how our government works, our system of justice, the history of the Constitution, and, indeed, U.S. history and what it's taken to maintain and protect our liberties.

A chilling 2003 report from The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at the University of Maryland, revealed that in our high schools, "most formal civic education today comprises only a single course on government — compared to as many as three courses in civics, democracy, and government that were common in the 1960s."

This situation has not yet markedly improved.

The report adds that in this single civics course, these days, there is hardly any discussion of the role of a citizen in this society.

It's not surprising, then, that as columnist Robyn E. Blumner of the St. Petersburg Times reports: "A National Conference of State Legislatures survey recently found that 64 percent of 15- to 26-year-olds can identify Ruben Studdard as a winner on American Idol, while only 40 percent can name the party that controls Congress."

This May, in New York City, 81 percent of eighth-graders flunked the state's basic social studies exam, which includes civics knowledge. Said Councilman Oliver Koppell (D-Bronx) to the New York Daily News: "I am dumbfounded that when I go into a class and I ask them who the mayor is, or what a congressman does, they don't know."

Yet there are organizations around the country trying to remedy this crucial omission in how we prepare the young for citizenship. One of the most impressive is the Center for Civic Education in Calabasas, Calif., and Washington, D.C., whose programs reach some 4.8 million students across the nation annually (3 million domestic and the 1.8 million youngsters involved in its foreign programs).

For years, I have recommended their "We the People: the Citizens and the Constitution" program in my visits to elementary, middle and high schools. Its compelling curriculum makes the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the essential principles of this democratic republic come alive. (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

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The Center for Civic Education also runs "We the People: Project Citizen," which gets middle school students and youth organizations to participate in local and state government.

However, President Bush's education budget for the next fiscal year annihilated funding for these programs. Therefore, both in the House and Senate, there is a strong bipartisan drive to insure that the Center's Civic Education Program is included in the fiscal 2006 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education Appropriations bill at $21.5 million, the same level as last year.

In the House, leading this vital support for the future of our constitutional democracy are Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), David Obey (D-Wis.) and the 96 House members who joined them. In the Senate, keeping the Founders' legacy alive in our schools are Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), along with 36 other senators who have signed a "Dear Colleague" letter. Like its House counterpart, the letter emphasizes:

"Independent evaluations testify to the success of these programs in promoting civic knowledge, intellectual and participatory skills, and civic dispositions such as civility, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, and a devotion to the common good of all citizens."

A separate pocket-sized publication from the Center for Civic Education is the inexpensive "American Legacy: The United States Constitution and other Essential Documents of American Democracy." The contents includes The Mayflower Compact of 1620; sections of the Federalist Papers; George Washington's farewell address; Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural address; Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?"; excerpts from Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms"; and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream."

I always have a copy of "American Legacy" with me for talks to students, and for help in writing this column. The booklet also has part of my favorite Supreme Court opinion, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). The High Court, in an 8-1 decision, ruled that the school board violated the rights of Jehovah's Witnesses' children by forcing them to salute the American flag:

"If there is any fixed star in our constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."

Each and every American citizen should care about whether our children now and in generations to come understand the value, meaning and responsibility of being a citizen. Our freedoms are not an absolute unmovable foundation. They need to be both nurtured and protected. As Supreme Court Justice William Brennan once told me, "the Founders knew that liberty is fragile."

In today's America, with entertainment-obsessed youth exposed to what National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia rightly calls "cultural impoverishment," we risk forgetting our beginnings as a constitutional democracy, now the oldest in the world. If future citizens don't know their heritage, as Robyn E. Blumner poignantly wrote in the St. Petersburg Times: "When we lose the Republic, will anyone notice?"

I deeply hope Congress keeps the "We the People" civic education program alive, and I sure wish every American had a copy of its pocket-sized "American Legacy." Its Americanism makes you proud.

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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance". Comment by clicking here.

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