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A civics revival

REMEMBER CIVICS class? Too many people don't, and that's why national groups working to make democracy and citizenship riveting parts of the kindergarten-through-12th-grade curriculum deserve a rousing blast of John Philip Sousa -- with flags.

The newest effort, started in March, is the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, which last month gave grants of $150,000 each to six states to make civics a priority.

"We want to revive the ideal," said David Skaggs, a former Democratic congressman from Colorado, in a recent interview. He is founder and director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship in Washington, which is overseeing the school program.

Funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the initiative seeks to turn civics education into a statewide effort that includes coalitions of politicians, judges, business people, and community leaders as well as teachers. The idea is to go beyond how a bill becomes a law and to inspire students with the power a citizen holds in democratic society.

Skaggs wants to get young people to be as passionate about voting as many of them are about recycling, which, he noted, "has instilled in people the idea that every can matters." He asks, "Why haven't we instilled the kind of civic faith in people that tells them every vote matters?"

Patrick Phillips, deputy commissioner of education in Maine -- which was awarded one of the grants -- said that low voter turnouts in national elections, particularly in the 18-to-24 age group, should be a warning bell to the country.

"It is time to think as a society about the role all of us play in transmitting the beliefs, skills, and knowledge required for participation in a democratic society," he said in a phone interview. He wants to encourage more interaction among legislators, judges, and students, fostering "a deeper, more personal sense" of how the system works.

Enlightened spots

That's happening in some enlightened spots around the country -- notably in Hudson, Mass., where the superintendent of schools, Sheldon Berman, declares the "true mission of education" to be not only the teaching of math, science, and reading but "the creation of a public on which a democracy can survive."

For the past 10 years Hudson schools have emphasized civics from kindergarten on up. Students do community service projects, work to change environmental law, discuss the moral and immoral decisions of government, and are part of committees that debate and press for change on school policies.

"I don't believe kids learn civics unless they live it," said Berman.

State Senator Richard Moore, Democrat from Uxbridge, who serves on Skaggs's steering committee, said Massachusetts has a "reasonably healthy civics component" in its history and social studies frameworks, and he praises the Education Department's move to include civics questions in the MCAS tests.

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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