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Massachusetts can do better

Date: 8/21/2013

“Ours is a government of the people, for the people, and by the people,” in the words of Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

Is this true today? Has the role of people diminished? Are all age groups involved in the political process? Unfortunately the younger generation, the hope of the future, lacks a basic understanding of American government. According to the results from a national survey administered by the Department of Education, more than one-third of the country’s high school seniors do not understand the fundamentals of our government or the role that citizens play in it.

For example, 30 percent of high school seniors understand that the Supreme Court reviews the constitutionality of laws. And only 9 percent of the seniors surveyed could give two reasons why it is good to take part in a democratic society.

In addition, the average college senior knows little about government and international relations. Their average score on the Civic Literacy Test was 53.2 percent, according to the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy.

Improved civic learning goes hand in hand with more active citizenship. Citizen participation is the foundation of any democracy.

We can do better. Programs such as the Model Congress at American International College involve students in mock House and Senate sessions. Similarly, the Washington Close-Up Foundation, among other Washington programs, helps students develop a better understanding of our government.

We can do better. Connecticut, among other states, requires a half-year course in Civics/American Government as a condition for graduation. The result is an increase in voter registration and voter participation for the 18 to 24 year old age group. Massachusetts would be wise to follow the lead of Connecticut.

We can do better. In the Civic Mission of Schools report, educators are reminded that their central responsibility is to prepare competent and responsible citizens. Responsible citizens are informed and thoughtful; have an appreciation of history and American democracy; understand public issues and think critically; participate in their communities; act politically through group problem solving and voting; have concern for the rights and general good of others; responsible citizens have the capacity to make a difference.

The Civic Mission of Schools Campaign suggests promising practices for schools to follow as we prepare such citizens: effective instruction in government, history and economics; classroom discussions of current issues; service learning and internships; participation in school government; active learning in the political process.

As Charles Haynes and Terry Pickeral of the Civics Mission Campaign wrote: “Reading and math are important – very important. But if we care about the health of our nation, then we must be more concerned with what kind of citizens do the math and read the books.”

Citizenship skills are as important as any of the skills we teach in our schools. Massachusetts can do better. We can do better, and surely we must try.

Michael J. Harrington

East Longmeadow