When Borough President Oddo asked me to help develop content for a new tab on our website that was to be called “The Civics Corner,” I savored the assignment as much as any I’ve had since I entered public service. That’s how much I love the topic, and bemoan the widespread lack of knowledge about civics and government. For many who think as I do, it isn’t hyperbolic to say this ignorance constitutes a slowly-metastasizing crisis that could become – if it is not already – a crippling blow to good governance.
At the “Civics Corner” you will find articles, whiteboards, links to websites and TED Talks – pretty much anything and everything we can find to address the subject.
For too many New Yorkers, mention of the word “civics” will elicit a yawn. In most cases, those legions of the disinterested either think they have a firm grip on the topic (they don’t), think it’s not an important subject (it is), or think it really has no impact on their lives (it does).
Let’s start by defining it: the study of civics teaches us our rights as citizens, as well as our duties to other citizens and to our government. And it provides us with a much-needed understanding of how government works.
For much of our nation’s history civics had been taught in American schools - it was considered an obligation and a necessity, our solemn responsibility to train successive generations about what it means to be a good citizen and what it means to be an American. Today, sadly, civics learning has taken a back seat to other subjects; an old adage in education being “if it is tested, it is taught.”
Civics is not being tested, and in our schools, civics is not being taught. Not to the extent it should be, anyway.
While no one is denying the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), particularly here at Borough Hall where those subjects are venerated, there is no denying that they are crowding out civics education. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, a basic knowledge of our three branches of government and how they work together - none of this is being taught in depth, if it is being taught at all.
More than half of all Americans tested in a survey by City Journal couldn’t name the three branches of government. More than two-thirds couldn’t identify when the Civil War was fought within fifty years!
How can the next generation of leaders even qualify to be called “leaders” if they lack a rudimentary grasp of how our country works, and more importantly, have little understanding of how our nation came to be, are ignorant of the ideals and beliefs that molded it, and are unaware of the philosophies and schools of thought that shaped our values and our culture?
So our Civics Corner is but one small attempt to get folks to pay some attention to the issue. Will we replace a robust high school civics class? Absolutely not – nor is that the intent. We just want to raise awareness a little bit, to address topics that affect us on the most local of levels and to provide links to various websites, lectures and workshops. There are informative whiteboards on a variety of topics and more are being added every month. And we’re proud to mention that we’ve recently convinced the Department of Education to begin training all Staten Island social studies teachers who wish to offer their students a digital learning resource called iCivics. The announcement was made at (where else?) one of our top-rated schools: The School for Civic Leadership in Graniteville.
The words of Sandra Day O’Connor, the driving force behind iCivics, are perhaps the most fitting way to end this piece: “The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens…”