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Dunlap: High-quality civic education is worth the investment

February 20, 2019

commentary-dunlapHaving been involved in civic education in Indiana for almost 20 years, I welcome the recent increased attention on the need to have more civic education in our schools. Civic education holds us together as a state and country by giving us the tools we need to be informed and engaged citizens. Our democracy requires civic education to function and thrive. A strong foundation of civic education serves as the “manual” for citizens to understand how we interact with our government at all levels, and indeed to know that there are different parts of government that each have unique roles and responsibilities. Just like learning to drive a car and understanding the rules of the road through a driver’s education class, quality civic education programs help us learn the “rules of the road” for becoming knowledgeable and engaged citizens.

Indiana’s legendary statesman, retired Congressman Lee Hamilton, has often discussed the importance of civic education, reminding us that we are not born with this knowledge and appreciation for our system of government. Civic virtue must be taught and instilled in each generation to preserve our constitutional democracy for the future. This is a mission to which we must continuously rededicate ourselves.

Quality civic education programs at work in Indiana

In Indiana, we are fortunate to have many organizations and groups dedicated to putting their collective shoulders to the wheel to provide high-quality civic education programs to Hoosiers of all ages. The Indiana Bar Foundation is one such group. The foundation has been producing and supporting high-quality civic education programs such as “We the People” in Indiana for three decades. Since 1987, Indiana’s We the People program has had over 200,000 student participants. Indiana’s We the People program is one of the strongest in the nation because of the highly effective partnership between the Indiana Bar Foundation and the Indiana General Assembly, which has provided continued crucial support for the program.

commentary-boxThe primary goal of We the People, which is taught as part of a regularly rostered class in some Indiana schools, is to promote civic competence and responsibility among Indiana’s elementary, middle and high school students. The program includes:

• An instructional component, focused on enhancing students’ understanding of the institutions of American constitutional democracy and discovering the contemporary relevance of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and;

• A culminating activity of a simulated congressional hearing in which students “testify” before a panel of judges. Students demonstrate their understanding of constitutional principles and have opportunities to take, defend and evaluate positions on relevant historical and contemporary issues.

The participating students research and discuss weighty topics concerning our society and government. The process requires students not only to sharpen their critical thinking skills analyzing complex issues, but also to support their opinions and answers with evidence-based responses. The We the People program is aligned with Indiana’s social studies standards and provides additional opportunities for students to enhance their writing, presentation and public speaking skills, and their critical reading of non-fiction sources.

Investing in teachers

The other important part of the success of Indiana’s We the People program is the investment that is made in teachers. In the early years of the program, Indiana developed a first-in-the-nation summer institute model for teachers. This summer institute brings upper elementary, middle and high school teachers together to interact with constitutional scholars and academic mentors to learn about government, the Constitution and Bill of Rights at no cost to the teachers. The teachers also receive copies of the We the People textbook and e-book. These contain relevant content and student exercises to encourage interactive classroom strategies, making teaching and learning an exciting experience.

Results and research

The results of these program components speak for themselves. The We the People program has been the subject of numerous academic peer-reviewed studies, including one comprehensive study in 2015 focused solely on Indiana. The Indiana study, available at https://inbf.org/Educational-Programs/We-The-People/We-The-People-Research, demonstrated the impact of the program on students’ civic knowledge and their civic dispositions. The studies show that Hoosier students who went through the We the People program were more likely to:

• Believe that it is their responsibility to be involved in their community;

• Feel that they could make their community better by working with others, rather than individually;

• Become more tolerant of opposing political ideas;

• Respect the rule of law;

• Follow politics and enjoy talking about government and politics;

• Be inclined to participate in politics;

• Critically consume political news, and;

• Be inclined to vote in local and national elections and to serve on a jury.

An investment in quality civic education programs such as We the People produces a powerful antidote for the challenges we confront in our current political atmosphere and society. If we dedicate our resources to educating students in civics from a young age, the research shows it pays off in significant ways. What is even more exciting is that these benefits are demonstrated to hold true across differences in socioeconomic and family education levels. Income and family education levels have been shown to influence the likelihood that someone votes and becomes an informed and engaged citizen, so addressing these factors through civic education is a powerful tool.

Another reason civic education is so important is that increasingly, people don’t seem to understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens. For instance, we hear a lot about “freedom of speech,” or “freedom of religion” in the media, but those phrases are often used incorrectly and are misunderstood. Much of what people know about the court system comes from television shows. While entertaining, television does not always serve as the best source of accurate information. When we educate kids and teens about what their actual rights and responsibilities are, they’re much likelier to stand up for themselves and to hold other people to those same standards. Devoting more resources to high-quality civic education programs is an investment that we must make to maintain the future of our constitutional democracy.•

Charles R. Dunlap is executive director of the Indiana Bar Foundation. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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