Do you know who your state senator is? Your mayor? Who represents you in Washington, D.C.?
These are the types of questions I asked my students on the first day of my American government class for over 30 years. “Who cares,” was a rare response. More often they would reply “I should know this.” Thus, my class began.
In 2016 I retired after teaching 12,000 students about American government, then began the next stage of my life as a state senator. One of the first things I learned was that students are not required to take an American government class to graduate from high school. I also learned that Article XIII of the Minnesota Constitution states: “The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools.”
“A republican form of government dependent upon the intelligence of the people,” yes indeed!
Our juniors and seniors are driving; paying sales, income and gas taxes; registering for selective service; looking at post-secondary options; and obviously voting and caucusing. A required class for the upper levels in high school would not just cover the knowledge necessary to carry on an intelligent and engaging political conversation, but also the skills required for full-on civic participation.
A ‘flawed democracy’
Attending civic meetings in a civil manner, writing letters to your representatives and newspapers, and learning how to lobby and influence public policy are all part of the puzzle we must teach our youth. Not requiring a civics course at the appropriate level in our schools is truly a continuing catastrophe of epic proportions. A recent report called America a “flawed democracy,” ranking our nation 21st in world rankings in public participation in governance. Shame on us, we should be No. 1!
The Constitution begins with the words, “We the people in order to form a more perfect union …” It is extremely hard to make it more perfect if we do not know how, if we lack the tools, if we lack the rules, if we lack the basic concepts of the who, what, where, when, and why. In order to become a U.S. citizen, we require people to pass a citizenship test. Should we, the native-born population, not be role models for our newest members of society? Should we not be getting a near-perfect score? After all, we were the ones born here.
There is much more required of a citizen than basic knowledge. We need to create the critical thinkers, the engaged and enlightened citizenry, that our constitutions demand. The greatest menace to freedom is a disinterested and disengaged citizenry. Political efficacy and civic virtue and civic engagement will become lifetime habits if we give our youth the necessary ingredients while they are in our classrooms.
Necessary tools and skills for a democracy
The state Legislature not only has a constitutional duty to require a civics class, we have a moral responsibility to do so as well.
We must ask ourselves if having a civically engaged populace is a priority shared by all. If yes, contact your state senator and representative and tell them. If you believe it is not, then please contact them as well. I, like state Rep. Dean Urdahl, have introduced legislation in the Senate. My bill failed to advance in the legislative process, but I remain hopeful that the conversation will continue.
We owe it to our children, our constituents, and our posterity to provide the necessary tools and skills for us to continue our journey as participants in the world’s longest ongoing experiment: Whether government of the people, and by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this Earth.
As a teacher, and now as a state senator, this is a responsibility I do not take lightly. I think we have seen glimpses as of late as to what our young people may be capable of. We as parents, teachers, and legislators owe it to the next generation to prepare them to participate in this experiment called American democracy.
After the signing of the U.S. Constitution, a group of Americans gathered outside Independence Hall and shouted to Benjamin Franklin: “What kind of government are you giving us?” He replied: “A Republic, if you can keep it!”
Let’s not let him down.
State Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, DFL-Eden Prairie, represents District 48.
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