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A civics revival

Page 2 of 2 -- But he noted that not enough students here, or nationally, are grasping the gut-level lesson of democracy.

He said the National Conference of State Legislatures did a survey last year and found that more young people knew the hometown of the TV cartoon family "The Simpsons" than could name their own state capitals.

"America is probably more vulnerable to democracy declining from within than it is to a terrorist attack," said Moore, who has worked on an advisory group within the National Conference of State Legislatures to encourage Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge and the Department of Defense to promote civic education.

An ornery streak

But civics -- which was a priority after World War II -- is no longer embraced by an America that has developed an ornery anti-government streak.

Tam Taylor, press officer of the 40-year-old Center for Civic Education -- a Calabasas, Calif., group that has led the movement for a better-informed citizenry -- noted that the Vietnam War protests, followed by the Watergate scandals and the cultural revolution, soured the public on civic involvement. The national focus on science and math after the launching of Sputnik also stole attention from civics -- and those disciplines still eclipse Democracy 101.

Another problem is politicians themselves, who denigrate the very institutions they seek to join. Slogans such as "throw the bums out" do not inspire young people -- or adults -- to get involved -- and they ignore the fact that, once challengers displace incumbents, they become the bums.

Taylor's group chips away at the calcification on the democratic spirit by pushing a K-12 classroom program called "We the People," which includes simulated congressional hearings and lessons in the fine art of compromise. The center also runs "Project Citizen," which involves middle school students in working to change public policy.

The center has international educational programs in 60 countries, including Bosnia, Nigeria, and 10 Arab nations.

"There is such an eagerness to learn about democracy in these places," said Taylor. "It's such a contrast with how blase people have become in the US."

The center, along with the National Conference of State Legislatures and Indiana State University's Center on Congress, is also trying to get civic education on the national agenda. It brought 350 delegates from 50 states to Washington last year to press the cause. Organizers are planning five more such gatherings to refocus the country on what never should have slipped out of sight.

"If this were national defense, people would be outraged," said Skaggs of the civic deficit. "We have unilaterally disarmed."

Time to reload the brain and heart -- and to embrace what should be considered a privilege to learn. 

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