How Civics Education Is Important For Public Understanding Of Health And Science

In Building better citizens, Holly Korbey argues that civics education—educating students about basic factual knowledge and how to be an effective citizen—has never been more important as more and more people can’t distinguish between real and fake news. As Korbey aptly notes, “With so much misinformation flooding the internet, it suddenly feels like we are debating the very existence of scientific truth itself.” Basically, in order to have a democracy we need to be able to agree on the same set of facts, and in health and science at present that seems more important than ever. What follows is a brief interview with Korbey about what civics education is, why it has been neglected, and how can improve health and science literacy.

How do you define civics education and why is it so important? 

Civics education, quite literally, is learning how to be a citizen. In the book, I take a look at what means—what you need to know to be an effective citizen in the 21st century. That includes learning about history and geography and how our government is set up, which is what traditionalists would call the basics of civics. But I argue that there’s more to it than that to live in our 24/7, globalized, multiracial and multicultural, completely digital America. To be a responsible citizen today, you also have to know how to find reliable sources of news, how to determine fact from fiction, and how to talk and listen to others you may disagree with in our incredibly polarized political climate. It’s not a case of either/or, you have to have both. 

The reason it’s important, essential is the word I would use, is because in a democracy the power rests with the people. The president, Congress, ultimately they’re not the “deciders” – the people are. And as Sandra Day O’Connor has famously said, Americans aren’t born knowing how to live in a democracy. Each generation must be taught history and the Constitution, as well as the rights and responsibility they have to decide the fate of the nation.

Why has civics education largely been neglected? 

Civics ed began being neglected in the second half of the 20th century—before that it was the original mission for starting the public schools! But several things happened: the launch of Sputnik and the space race created a sense that schools weren’t focusing enough on STEM subjects. Schools’ missions really changed from training young citizens to enter democracy to preparing students for college and career. And then the school

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Federal judge rules students have no constitutional right to civics education — but warns that ‘American democracy is in peril’

In an extraordinary decision that referenced President Trump’s tweets to postpone the November presidential elections, U.S. District Court Judge William Smith said the public school students who filed the lawsuit were not on a “wild-eyed effort to expand the reach of substantive due process.” Rather, he said, they were issuing “a cry for help from a generation of young people who are destined to inherit a country which we — the generation currently in charge — are not stewarding well.”

“What these young people seem to recognize is that American democracy is in peril,” he wrote (see opinion in full below). “Its survival, and their ability to reap the benefit of living in a country with robust freedoms and rights, a strong economy, and a moral center protected by the rule of law is something that citizens must cherish, protect, and constantly work for. We would do well to pay attention to their plea.”

The class-action lawsuit filed two years ago by 14 named students and their parents said that Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) and state education and legislative leaders had failed to provide them with an “education that is adequate to prepare them to function productively as civic participants capable of voting, serving on a jury, understanding economic, social, and political systems sufficiently to make informed choices, and to participate effectively in civic activities.”

That failure, the lawsuit said, violated their constitutional rights under different parts of the Constitution that they said guaranteed them the right to an education that prepares them to be active citizens. The lawsuit said the defendants had “downgraded the teaching of social studies and civics, focusing in recent decades on basic reading and math instruction” and “neglected professional development of teachers in civics education.”

But Smith said in his ruling last week that in regard to the contention by students that their constitutional rights included a right to civics education, “The answer to that question is, regrettably, no.” He said, however, that the students “should be commended for bringing this case,” believed to be the first of its kind in a U.S. court.

“It highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies,” Smith wrote. “The court cannot provide the remedy plaintiffs seek, but in denying that relief, the court adds its voice to plaintiffs’ in calling attention to their plea. Hopefully, others who have the power to address this need will respond appropriately.”

Derek Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law and an expert on constitutional law and education law, criticized the ruling, saying: “State courts across the country routinely answer these types of questions. The notion that a federal court cannot act, when states have otherwise failed to do so, is inconsistent with the history of public education.”

There has long been concern about the lack of comprehensive civics education in America’s schools, especially during the past few decades when education reform policy was focused on raising standardized test scores in math and

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Judge rules against students seeking better civics education

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by a group of Rhode Island school children demanding a better civics education in the nation’s public schools, but in the same decision praised the students for bringing attention to the issue and lamented the delicate state of American democracy.

The class-action lawsuit filed in November 2018 by 18 plaintiffs asked the court to confirm the constitutional right of all public school students to a civics education that prepares them adequately to vote, exercise free speech, petition the government and actively engage in civic life in a democratic society.

U.S. District Court Judge William Smith in his 55-page ruling released Tuesday said that right has not been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But, he also warned of a “democracy in peril” and referenced the global coronavirus pandemic, the killing of George Floyd and media reports about tweets from President Donald Trump that suggested the upcoming election should be postponed because of perceived voter fraud.

“This case does not represent a wild-eyed effort to expand the reach of substantive due process, but rather a cry for help from a generation of young people who are destined to inherit a country which we — the generation currently in charge — are not stewarding well,” he wrote. “What these young people seem to recognize is that American democracy is in peril.”

Michael Rebell, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and lead attorney for the students, said the decision would be appealed to a higher court.

“Judge Smith has written the most eloquent and forceful justification I’ve ever read for why American democracy is in peril and why America may not ‘survive as a country’ if our students don’t obtain a civic education adequate to allow them to meet that challenge,” he said in a statement.

The defendants in the case were several state political leaders, including Gov. Gina Raimondo, as well as former state Education Commissioner Ken Wagner.

Current Commissioner Angelica Infante-Greene also praised the students for bringing the suit, but defended the state’s civics education.

The suit “did not fairly depict the state of civics education in the state,” she said in a statement.

“However, I join Judge Smith in commending the plaintiffs for bringing the suit and calling attention to a critical issue and challenging all of us working in the field to do better,” she said.

Smith, in his conclusion, called on the country to address the students’ concerns.

“Plaintiffs should be commended for bringing this case,” he said. “It highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies. The court cannot provide the remedy plaintiffs seek, but in denying that relief, the court adds its voice to plaintiffs in calling attention to their plea. Hopefully, others who have the power to address this need will respond appropriately.”

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