“Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge. Without learning, men are incapable of knowing their rights, and where learning is confined to a few people, liberty can be neither equal nor universal.” – Benjamin Rush, 1786
The United States lags behind most developed nations in voter participation. During the 2016 Presidential election, one that was consistently described as the most important in a generation, barely more than half of eligible American voters cast a ballot. Harvard University Associate Professor Meira Levinson provided an additional cause for concern when she reported “people living in families with incomes under $15,000 voted at just over half the rate of those living in families with incomes over $75,000.” This difference highlights what has come to be called the “civic achievement gap“, where low-income, largely minority populations have lower rates of engagement and participation in civic affairs.
So what can be done to strengthen our “basic sense of solidarity“? Can we ignite a stronger sense of national identity that speaks to what we share rather than what separates us? What would it take to teach the next generation about the importance of community and civic values, when we seem to be moving further and further towards social and economic isolation? Part of the answer lies in a renewal of civics education in our public school system. Educating young people about their rights and responsibilities as citizens is equally important to the time spent preparing them to succeed in the workplace.
It’s unsurprising that there is bi-partisan support for greater civics learning in the classroom. However, financial support for such programs has been slow to follow since funding for civics education was eliminated from the federal budget in 2011. In an effort to renew support for civics learning, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools has worked at the local, state, and national level to restore high level civics education in our schools. Co-chaired by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, this coalition brings together 60 groups of advocates, educators, and public officials to promote civics education in the public school system. Through their work, the coalition hopes to change policy so that civic literacy can begin to work its way back into American culture, allowing us to teach the next generation how to run a democracy before it is their turn to do so.