Jennifer Ostyn and thousands like her across this great country are vitally important to the preservation and improvement of our system of self-government. Jennifer teaches civics at Valley High School (between Eden and Hazelton), where I graduated with the Class of 1960. Jennifer flatly states, “I consider the teaching of Civics the bedrock of our society.” She is absolutely right.
The United States came upon the world scene proclaiming itself to be a country that would be governed by its people. The first three words of our Constitution are “We the people.” At Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln described our government as being “of the people, by the people, for the people.” The Idaho Constitution, like most other state constitutions in the U.S., recognizes that all political power derives from the people.
Self-government imposes a heavy burden upon the people to understand the workings of government, to stay abreast of public policy issues, to inform themselves about those seeking to represent them in governmental offices and to vote when elections are held. Unfortunately, large segments of the people fail to carry out their important role in making our democracy function properly.
According to a 2016 survey, “nearly a third of Americans cannot name any of the three branches of government.” Last December, a newly elected U.S. Senator, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, guessed the three as “the House, the Senate and the executive.” Although voter turnout was significantly higher than usual last year, almost 100 million voting age Americans did not vote. A Pew survey found that as of March 2019, only 17% of American trusted the Federal Government to do the right thing.
The failure of confidence in government coincides with “a steady erosion in the teaching of civics and history over the past 50 years,” according to a March 5 Washington Post editorial. “While the country spends about $50 federal dollars per student per year on science and math education, only five cents per year per student is allocated for civic education.”
A Brookings Institute report last year pointed out the urgent need for schools across the country to significantly increase their efforts to educate children about civics, history and public engagement. “As one of the few social institutions present in virtually every community across America, schools can and should play an important role in catalyzing increased civic engagement.”
Along those lines, a diversified group of educators, historians and civic leaders announced an initiative this March to dramatically increase the nation’s investment in teaching about civics, history and government. The Educating For American Democracy (EAD) initiative aims “to reach 60 million students, 100,000 schools and 1 million teachers by the end of the decade.” The initiative seeks to put teaching of history and civics more on a par with STEM and English courses. An understanding of how government works and how we can help shape it to improve our communities and country is essential to living meaningful, productive lives.
We need more Jennifer Ostyns in schools across the country. Dedicated and enthusiastic teachers, instructing our children about our unique system of self-government and how to keep it fresh and responsive. It will require the investment of significant public resources, but it is what the founders of this country would expect of us.