Trustees | General Education

We have a civic duty to teach civics

BALTIMORE SUN   |  August 2, 2017 by W. Blaine Brewer

Want to stump your friends on Bar Trivia Night? No need to dredge up the capital of Burkina Faso (Ouagadougou), or Millard Fillmore’s vice president (he didn’t have one). Just ask your fellow trivia pursuers to name their state senator. How about their city or county council person? Perhaps their congressional representative — or even tougher their congressional district. Unless you have an exceptional group of drinking buddies, chances are that your questions will go unanswered.

In any group of local folks you’re likely to find more fellow citizens who can identify Orioles back up catcher Caleb Joseph than can name the president pro tem of the U.S. Senate (Orrin Hatch) who happens to be third in line for the presidency.

It’s not that we here in Maryland are exceptionally clueless when it comes to civic knowledge. The shortfall seems to be pretty much nationwide. We the people are we the uninformed on matters of citizenship.

In 2016, The Annenberg Public Policy Center at The University of Pennsylvania conducted a study that found that only 26 percent of respondents could identify the three branches of government; 31 percent could not name even one.

The Harvard Political Review in a May article entitled, “Civic Illiteracy in America,” reported that 57 percent of respondents to a C-Span survey could not name even one justice on the Supreme Court; meanwhile, an American Council of Trustees and Alumni poll found that 10 percent of college graduates identified TV’s Judge Judy as a Supreme Court justice.

It might be argued that all this stuff is trivia. Well, knowing Ouagadougou is trivial, but knowledge that tells you whom to contact to get a stop sign put up to make your street safer, urge the allocation of funds to renovate your kids’ school or press for a cleaner Chesapeake Bay is anything but trivial. Being able to contact our elected officials, petition them, hire them and fire them as needed is the essence of our republic. Knowing who they are and what they are up to is not a pursuit of trivia but a major component of our pursuit of happiness. Jefferson was right when he said “an enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic.”

So what needs to be done? You won’t be surprised to learn if you’ve read this far that I am a retired teacher of American history and government. Our public schools have contributed to our plight by stressing science and math to the detriment of history and civics. Mastery of the former is vital but will not matter much if while our technical knowledge advances, our democracy and our civil liberties decline.

We should develop a K-12 curriculum that stresses civics and civic responsibility. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has devised a curriculum called “I-civics,” which has students become actively engaged in solving common public policy problems through role playing and games.

Programs such as The American Legion Boys State can provide students with hands on experience in the nuts and bolts of democracy.

Baltimore City once had a Model Youth City Council that provided students an opportunity to “run” the city government for a day. As a senior at Southern High School, I participated in that program, met Council President Thomas D’Alesandro III and Mayor Theodore McKeldin and developed a respect for our political system that has lasted through my lifetime.

Further, all of us owe it to our country to educate ourselves to the workings of our democracy. It sounds trite but knowledge really is power.

As Americans, it is our privilege and our right to grouse, grumble and complain that, “They ought to pass a law!”

Shouldn’t we know who “THEY” are?


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