Arlene Violet: Legislature, mandate civics education

By Arlene Violet
Posted 1/30/20

Here are three cheers for the lawyers at the non-profit center, Rhode Island Center for Justice (centerforjustice.com). In a lawsuit with national implications, the Center has filed a lawsuit on …

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Arlene Violet: Legislature, mandate civics education


Here are three cheers for the lawyers at the non-profit center, Rhode Island Center for Justice (centerforjustice.com). In a lawsuit with national implications, the Center has filed a lawsuit on behalf of 14 students who, in effect, are stand-ins for all Rhode Island students. The very marrow of the lawsuit is that students are being denied their constitutional rights to a robust civics education. The argument is that nothing is more rooted in our democracy than preparing students to participate in that democracy. Education in civics is essential to maintaining the very fabric of our society.

Yet, in Rhode Island, civics is not mandated as a course, nor are teachers trained in this subject. Only 23 percent  of Rhode Island students passed the civics test on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The last time I wrote about this topic I heard from educators who also were appalled at the lack of civics courses. One told me that in her school, which nominally is on record as teaching civics, had assigned the course to the physical education teacher who was so ill-prepared to teach the course, hetold the students to just read the book.

Wake up folks! How can the principles of this country be upheld when students are woefully devoid of knowledge of American heritage and history? Studies confirm that universities are doing little or nothing to bridge the ignorance gap as more and more students pour into universities without a scintilla of knowledge about how the American system of government works. An annual survey by the Newseum Institute documented that one-third of Americans could not name a single right under the First Amendment. College seniors at the top 55 ranked colleges failed to identify the significance of Valley Forge, recognize key words in the Gettysburg Address or even basic facts about the Voting Rights Act. If grades were handed out for their knowledge, 80 percent of college students would receive a “D” or “F”. Ten percent of collegians thought that Judge Judy was on the United States Supreme Court!

Equally appalling was the lack of knowledge as to how this country can amend the Constitution (45 percent), which branch of government has the power to declare war (40 percent), or the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation (80 percent).

In this day and age where the very foundations of our country are shaken to the core, civics education is a MUST! This country needs a renewed commitment to the idea that human fulfillment is to be found in liberty or self-government. E PLURIBUS UNUM is the connecting fiber of this country. Divisions along ethnic, racial or religious beliefs undermine unity and leads to fractionalizing this country.

It is far past time for the Rhode Island Legislature to mandate civics education which includes the history of this country, its workings and the core documents that enshrine the principles of government. Mandatory tests on civics should be obligatory. As studies show, it is time for the rest of the population to catch up with their elders, i.e. folks over 65 who are the only group with a grasp of history and civics.

Legislators, pass mandatory civics classes. 

Meanwhile, the public might also want to support the efforts of the Rhode Island Center for justice by going to its website and contribute.

Arlene Violet is an attorney and former Rhode Island Attorney General.

Arlene Violet

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