Poli-ticks

Arlene Violet: The R.I. Senate should pass the Civic Literacy Act

By Arlene Violet
Posted 4/21/21

The Rhode Island House of Representatives just passed “The Civics Literacy Act”, which would require a high school student to demonstrate proficiency in civics education before high …

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Poli-ticks

Arlene Violet: The R.I. Senate should pass the Civic Literacy Act

Posted

The Rhode Island House of Representatives just passed “The Civics Literacy Act”, which would require a high school student to demonstrate proficiency in civics education before high school graduation. The bill was sponsored by Representative Brian C. Newberry (R-North Smithfield/Burrillville). The legislation now goes to the RI Senate which should promptly pass it.

It is hard to believe that civics is not mandated in Rhode Island. In a column I wrote in 2020, I cited a study which documented that only 23 percent of this state’s students passed the civics test on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. I argued in that piece that the principles of this country can’t possibly be upheld if young people are oblivious to American heritage and history. Kudos to Representative Newberry who recognized that students need to know the founding documents and governmental systems. He wisely noted that the course(s) should not be whitewashed with imperfections omitted nor should they gloss over the “subtlety, genius and keen reflections of the limitations and foibles of human nature.” He advocates for a curriculum also to contain practical instruction on how government works at all levels, the interplay on those levels, the limitation on power and constructive ways in which to effect change in public policy.

The timing of this initiative is right on. As Representative Gregg Amore (D-East Providence), a history teacher, articulated, “As we watch our country suffer from division, distrust and disinformation from all directions, it is vital to the health of our democratic republic that the future generations of our country know and understand how our government functions and how our current society came to be from its inception in 1776.” It is reassuring to that very democratic republic of which he speaks to see the bipartisan support for a measure which seeks to promote knowledgeable and engaged citizens.

In 2020 when I wrote my column begging for civics education, I cited an annual survey by the Newseum Institute which at that time documented that one-third of Americans could not name a single right guaranteed under the First Amendment. In 2020, because of the impeachment inquiry, the pandemic and arguments about “rights” to refuse to wear a mask, get vaccinated, etc., protests over racial injustice, and a contentious presidential campaign, the Annenberg Constitution Day Survey found that 73 percent of Americans correctly named Freedom of Speech as one of the guarantees under the First Amendment (up from 48 percent). When asked in 2020 to name all three branches of government 51 percent of American adults could do so up from 39 percent in 2019, a number that had been the prior high point in the survey).

It is sort of pathetic that it took a divided government and rancor to increase “knowledge” of basic civic facts. Politics, however, infused some of the understanding with remarks that democratic presidents are likely to make liberal rulings (37 percent) while justices appointed by a Republican president are more likely to make conservative rulings (41 percent) regardless of what the Constitution says.

The RI Senate now has the opportunity to make a dent in the ignorance of our Constitution and founding principles. Perhaps the readers of this column could do a little civic engagement themselves and contact their Senators to urge passage!

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

Arlene Violet

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.