By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Can you believe that only 1 in 7 Americans knows that John Roberts is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, yet two-thirds of Americans can name a judge on “American Idol”? According to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, that’s because only half of the states require civics or government classes for graduation anymore. Here’s what she told the National Education Association about her new website for middle-schoolers, ourcourts.org:
For a good many years, I think public schools, by and large, were conscientious and tried to teach civics and government. We have some very boring textbooks on the subject. Certainly most of them weren’t written to keep you awake. Nonetheless we persisted.
[But] in recent years, Congress and our then-President proposed federal money be given to school districts based on test scores in math and science, on the theory that schools doing a good job in those areas should be rewarded with some funding. The unintended result was that many schools stopped teaching civics and government.
I went on the website, and I found something interesting: a page where kids can send Justice O’Connor their opinions on various government-related subjects, and today’s subject is the 2011 federal budget. What was surprising was the number of middle-schoolers who write about saving money, wanting a balanced budget, and keeping our country out of debt. Last month, former Senator Alan Simpson, who is chairing the President’s new debt commission with Erskine Bowles, told me he’s a “stalking horse for his grandchildren,” and that once they make their recommendations in the fall, the two of them are launching a public education campaign on the coming fiscal disaster: "When we're through, the American people will know a hell of a lot more than they know now," he told me.
The American people are really very engaged politically right now, and I think that includes young people. Justice O’Connor is right about the fact that middle-schoolers are the perfect age for learning about government. With the national debt at historic levels, young people have more at stake in current politics than ever before. That’s why the crowds at tea party gatherings are so diverse, and why so many families show up. People are interested and want to know more. States need to bring back civics and government classes, and the President’s debt commission should consider including young people--even schoolchildren--in their targeted audiences this fall.