We Need to Begin Teaching Civics Again

In 1776, some ordinary citizens opposed to Britain's colonial policies decided to secede from the empire. On July 4, they wrote to King George III, stating their goals and their reasons. We call their statement the Declaration of Independence. Naturally, the King didn't welcome such treason. After the Revolutionary War, the victorious rebels designed a new country from scratch. Imagine that. No one had ever done it before. They called it The Noble Experiment.

They based their new nation on the premise that the people are the source of government power and authority. It was a radical notion, but they took the risk. After much debate and one false start, they devised an arrangement based partially on the Iroquois Confederacy.

Their nation's Constitution has been a model for other countries for 222 years. It is the oldest working constitution in the world. It still affects your life in countless ways every day. It takes about an hour to read it, yet few people ever do. This is its preamble:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Those six tasks outline an enormous responsibility. It does not lend itself to "small government".

If "we the people" are going to control our government, then "we the people" need to know its structure, how it's supposed to work, and how it actually does work. If we can do that, then all of our lives will improve.

Unfortunately, most of our schools do such an abysmal job that too many Americans are socially, politically, and economically illiterate. Yet no matter what our schools teach, if PARENTS don't reinforce lessons at home, our children will not learn. Parents, please. Learn this stuff. Teach your children. Read the newspaper. Discuss current events at the dinner table. Attend a city council meeting. Watch C-Span instead of umpteen TV reruns.

I've read the United States Constitution dozens of times. I wrote a book about it. I carry a copy of the Constitution in my purse because people always insist on arguing with me about what's in it. A few months ago, I was in Washington, D.C. While in the Capitol Building, I heard a tourist ask a tour guide where in the Constitution Jesus is mentioned as the foundation of our government. He was aghast when the guide told him that Jesus is not in the Constitution - at all. No, he isn't.

When you know how legislators make laws, then you can influence the process, and be your own lobbyist.

When you know how to find the text of a bill online, you can read it for yourself to determine which TV talking heads are telling the truth.

When you know how the three branches of government work together, who your government officials are, what they do, and how to contact them, then you can find help when you have problems with government agencies.

When you understand how Congressional committees work, and the power that Congressional staffers hold, you'll understand why bills live or die - and the evening news.

When you know how to evaluate your representatives' work, you'll make good choices in elections.

When you know what's in the Constitution, and what's not, you'll know who's grabbing power, and who's not.

When you understand the First Amendment, you'll know that someone criticizing your words is not violating your free speech rights.

Actor and activist Richard Dreyfuss has established the Dreyfuss Initiative, a project working to restore civics education and responsible discourse in our schools and our society. This week, I watched "Time for a Talk", a webcast produced by the Initiative to begin its work. It was an inspiring event, and I look forward to more of the same. The panel of eight middle-aged, upper-middle-class, white men, and one similar woman, discussed the state of civic participation in America. I do wish they had injected some age, cultural, and economic diversity into the mix.

As the Dreyfuss Initiative's website says:

America is hard. And it doesn't happen by itself. If you think things like "There's nothing I can do", stick around and learn how much power you have. This country is a miracle and the whole world knows it, except Americans, because we don't teach it.

Knowledge is power. America is in the state it's in because too many Americans have relinquished their power. Reclaim yours.

For more information:

Read the U.S. Constitution

Our Government

With a background as a social service provider and public policy advocate, Pat O'Malley is a freelance writer and consultant for nonprofit organizations working toward social justice. Pat's online column, Community Matters, uses current events to illustrate the American government process and function, with emphasis on the US Constitution. She explains the how and why our government works.

Social Policy & Programs Consulting
Community Matters

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