Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Case for Civics Education

A Case for Civics Education
Parkland Spanaway Rotary – June 22, 2010
Hans Zeiger

The educational challenges facing our country are very great. We are increasingly aware of our need to compete with the rest of the world.

An aspect of education that we overlook in our haste to make students economically competent is the need for political competence. Education is more than just how to be a worker. It is how to be a citizen.

A study of 14,000 college freshmen and seniors by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute with the University of Connecticut in 2007 found that civic literacy was appallingly low. The survey asked 60 basic questions about American government and history. The average freshman score was 50.4 percent and the average senior score was 54.2 percent. Those are failing grades. According to a 2003 survey by the National Conference on State Legislatures, the Center for Civic Education, and the Center on Congress at Indiana University, only about half of Americans between 15-26 said it’s important to be informed about government and politics; fewer than half thought it was important to express opinions to elected officials. The same survey showed that 82 percent of young people could identify Springfield as the hometown of the Simpsons, and 64 percent could name the current American Idol; only 10 percent could identify the Speaker of the House.

Civics education is important in a democratic republic because each of us is responsible for our government. Our form of government requires participation, and participation requires education.

Civics education teaches the way in which all can be included in the American experiment. It contains at its heart the American creed, that all human beings are created equal and endowed with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It teaches the need for responsibility, both personally and publicly.

The study of citizenship both locally and nationally is so important now, because our sense of identity is challenged in so many ways. We are more diverse and more globally-focused than ever before. The internet draws young Americans beyond the local communities in which they live. All of these things are good—diversity, globalization, the internet. Young people also need a sense of national identity and sense of responsibility as citizens.

The problem with civics education isn’t just a statistical thing that’s reflected in the study I cited. It’s a real crisis of priorities. In the 1960s, civic education began to disappear from schools. In 1961, 73 percent of high schools offered U.S. History, and by 1973, that had dropped to 53 percent.

The main reason government invests in public education in the first place is because we need to educate the future leaders of our government. Our Founders saw this civic link. They wrote in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787– one of the four organic documents of our country – “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government an the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

Many of the Founders emphasized the importance of education. George Washington called for a national university. Benjamin Franklin taught the necessity of practical education and founded the University of Pennsylvania.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Tyler in 1810 that with his political career concluded, “I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength.” The two goals were:
1. “That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom.
2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it.”[1]

Jefferson’s 1818 Rockfish Gap Report listed thirteen educational goals of the university, including several directly related to the formation of good citizens:

“To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either….
To instruct the mass of our citizens in these, their rights, interests, and duties, as men and citizens….
To form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend;
To expound the principles and structure of government….”[2]

Washington Territory took education very seriously; our first territorial governor Isaac Stevens said that every child should have the equal opportunity to receive an education.
This continued under statehood. Our Constitution says that education is the “paramount duty of the state.”

But the father of basic education in Washington was a man from Puyallup named John R. Rogers. He is best remembered because he is the man who first took the words of the State Constitution seriously in working to implement them.

So State Senator Rogers introduced what has become known as the Barefoot Schoolboy Bill in 1893. It proposed that there should be adequate funding for the Basic Education of every child in the state. And that was a radical thing, because it meant that if you lived in the Valley and went to Maplewood School you had just the same right to a basic education as if you lived in the Woodland area and went to Woodland School. And it was to say that all of us together have an interest in the education of the young, even the Barefoot Schoolboys and Schoolgirls. And that was actually a hard sell with the big cities at the time, because that meant they would have to pay more taxes to cover the poorer rural areas. So Rogers lost his first attempt to get that bill in the Senate. But he was a persistent man. He introduced the bill again, and it failed, and then again. His persistence paid off, because he was also a persuasive man. And in the very final days of the 1893 session, the Rogers Barefoot Schoolboy Bill passed.

Guess how much the per pupil state cost of basic education was for one year? $6.

There was a reward for Rogers’s persistence, and it isn’t just that they named a school in Puyallup after him. People in this state have always loved education, and if you are a champion of it, you can become a hero. Rogers suddenly became a sensation, and in the 1896 election, he was elected governor.

The story of John Rogers serves two purposes. It tells us something about our education system in this state. It also shows us what men and women can achieve in a free society. And young people need to learn about men like this in order to have models of how they can do great things as well.

Civics education took a couple of turns in the 20th Century. First, it was complicated by the Progressive movement, which celebrated the administrative state as a solution to the increasing complexity of society’s problems. Instead of solving problems through the three branches of government, you could delegate a lot of issues to bureaucracies, and so you needed a professional expert class of civil servants to deal with problems. Second, a lot of what was known as civics and history was lumped together under the heading of Social Studies. That meant that current events and issues often became more important than a deep understanding of our institutions, history, and national idea.

But civics education is just as important as ever. There are at least five reasons why we need to make it a priority:

1. We need a knowledgeable electorate.
2. Every generation must be reminded of the American idea of equality and liberty.
3. We need good and well-educated political leaders.
4. We need a way to educate new citizens.
5. We need civility grounded in a common understanding of who we are as a people.

Altogether civics education can help to cement our identity as a people. We should be humble – we are far from perfect, but our experiment is great in the history of the world. We have always had sufficient pride in our country and common intellectual and moral resources to pull together in time of need. It would be a tragedy if we forgot our identity. Nations can survive wars and famines and depressions. But nations that go through identity crises rarely come through intact.

Today we can do three things to promote this: get involved in organizations that promote civic education, ensure that local school districts are taking history and civics seriously, and find ways to get involved in civic life of our community. Of course, Rotary does that.

[1] Jefferson to John Tyler, 26 May 1810, The Essential Jefferson, ed. Jean M. Yarbrough, (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2006), 207.
[2] Jefferson, “Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia,” 1818, Yarbrough, 67.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Message to the Class of 2010

Puyallup High School Commencement
Hans Zeiger
June 12, 2010

Watch a video here.

Thank you Lauren. Mr. Smith, Boardmembers Heath and Ihrig, Superintendent Apostle—my brother Ross Zeiger:

My task this morning is to persuade Dr. Apostle that you deserve your diplomas. If I succeed, you can walk. If I fail, you have to start all over again as sophomores.

At the dawn of time, about eighteen years ago, the class of 2010 came into the world.

It was a remarkable moment in history. About that same time, a new word entered our vocabulary: internet. You in the class of 2010 have never known life without it. Think how much the world has changed since you and the internet were born. And consider the opportunities as well as the challenges before you.

Not least is the challenge of remembering what it is to be human.

For all the technological wonders that mark our age, nothing can replace the wonder of the person sitting next to you. No collection of online information can take the place of the teachers who have guided you through school. And no number of Facebook “friendships” can improve on the awesome potential for love and service that you’ve known in a flesh-and-blood community.

You in the class of 2010 are the inheritors of a grand story—generations old, borne of extraordinary generosity, and deeply infused with pride of place.

One hundred years ago, 1910, the new Puyallup High School opened its doors. Ninety-nine Junes ago, the great educator Edmund B. Walker presented diplomas to the first class. To the sons and daughters of Puyallup who walked after that class, the friendships and values formed here have been a source of strength in the midst of the years.

Today, a new generation of Vikings is waiting at the commencement platform. Because our hopes are invested with yours, today is a happy day. It is also sad, because it’s hard to say goodbye.

But always remember that you can come home.

As you part ways today, take inspiration from the significance of your heritage. Wherever you go now, let them know that you come from a place called Puyallup. Tell them that purple and gold runs in your blood. Then come back here to this Valley and let it run on.

And so, I have one charge for you this morning: Never forget where you come from. May it be your lifelong ambition to give generously to the community that has given so much to you. Puyallup means “The Generous People.” All around you is proof that we live up to our name. Your task in the years ahead is to continue that great tradition.

God bless you.