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Minnesota should require that students study American government

Do you know who your state senator is? Your mayor? Who represents you in Washington, D.C.?

Sen. Steve Cwodzinski

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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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 04/30/2018 - 11:59 am.

    How about adults?

    As the student led protests show, students are not the only ones who need to know how government works. Americans don’t like how the federal government operates but don’t seem to grasp how it could be made to yield better results. Maybe the teacher legislature should share his knowledge through a blog as a way to improve knowledge and fight misconceptions?

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/30/2018 - 12:40 pm.

    If I May Take This a Step Further . . .

    We should expect our elected officials to demonstrate some basic knowledge of American government.

    A few years ago, a legislator in one of the Western states (either Wyoming or Montana, I believe)introduced legislation that would require all candidates for elected office to take a written test on the state and federal constitutions.The test itself would have been carefully drafted and vetted, so as to make it as non-partisan as possible. Candidates would not have had to pass the test in order to be on the ballot, but their scores would have been public information.

    It should not be too much to ask those who want our votes to show how much they know about these basic ideas.

    • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/30/2018 - 01:53 pm.

      What?

      what about a test before you vote?

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/01/2018 - 08:44 am.

        Been There, Done That

        Ever hear about the “literacy” tests southern states used to administer at election time? They were one tool of the many used to suppress voting by, um, certain individuals. Good times, am I right?

        There is a profound difference between voting–a right that comes with citizenship–with being elected to office–a privilege conferred by the citizenry. In any event, candidates who did not do so well on the test would not have been disqualified from running. There scores would have been public information, but they could still be on the ballot.

  3. Submitted by LK WOODRUFF on 04/30/2018 - 02:13 pm.

    We ALL can and must do better.

    I suggest All of the above, plus bringing civics classes back to the schools.

    Because as we have all seen, a low information voter base wreaks grave havoc.

    And on the other side, there is an even greater danger: purposeful, planned propaganda!

    It lands near treason on the scale of despicable, horrific things to do to one’s country.

    And the punishment for treason used to be: hanging.

    How very, very different from the current ‘anything goes’ environment so prevalent now….

  4. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 04/30/2018 - 05:20 pm.

    Umm… the Voting Rights Act?

    Perhaps it was written in jest, but requiring a test before voting (as the southern states used to do for racist reasons) has been outlawed. But yes, educate voters, students, legislators, citizens.

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 04/30/2018 - 07:58 pm.

    I would have to research further …

    But the push for STEM and the relaxation into oblivion of Civics classes and social studies classes generally has not been helpful. There are math teachers who make every effort to include social issues into their classes as well as some science teachers. I doubt that this is a requirement. But things have changed since I retired from teaching. But these are not the only factors affecting the condition of the electorate. Since the primarily white flight with integration I am thinking at some of these flight schools social studies is not taught in the same way as public schools particularly in areas where a integrated population expects a total package approach to the American Experience. Now with an even forceful and sophisticated push from flight crowd our understanding of our situation has become even more confusing. Puncturing the mask over the “hidden agenda” has become even more challenging.

  6. Submitted by Ben Riechers on 05/01/2018 - 11:13 am.

    History Too

    We want people active in politics that know some history. We would like them to know that the founding documents established a vision and a set of values that great Americans have used to change America for the better (civil rights and voting rights being some of the most important).

    Another history we want people to know is that socialism, communism and Maoism have all led to modest or extreme versions of authoritarianism and that 20th Century Germany, Russia and China combined to kill an estimated 100 million people after selling people on social justice to get into power and then using force to stay in power. We have to be careful with the power we delegate to the state. That should be an important part of the history students are taught when they are learning about government and all it can be manipulated to do.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/02/2018 - 07:43 am.

    Absolutely!

    I have increasingly found myself trying and having to explain the basic nuts and bolt features of our democracy, legislative process, constitutions, and revenue collection regimes to people who make bizarre claims and complaints.

    However, I would have to say that the basic civics classes of my generation and earlier (I graduated High School in 1981) were inadequate, so simply returning to an earlier regime would not be sufficient. My generation is just a confused and civically illiterate as anyone graduating High School today, and we WERE required to take a civics class.

    Part of the problem is politicization of our education curriculum. Sure, let’s require civics classes, but what do we teach? We have sitting politicians, and school board members who think that school prayer brings us back to our Constitutional roots, and budget surpluses prove we’re over-taxed, and we’re a “republic” NOT a democracy. We have people who think that Jason Lewis is some kind of expert on government. Whether it biology, physics, or civics, whenever we try to design curriculum those think education is about teaching students WHAT to think clash with those who think education is about teaching students HOW to think.

    And of course civic alone won’t make students more politically or civically literate. We have to explicitly teach basic principles of critical thinking, history, reliable evidence recognition.

  8. Submitted by Bruce Lundeen on 05/02/2018 - 08:35 am.

    Should also study physics, chemistry, engineering, ….

    Agreed that much more critical thinking is necessary by the intelligent and engaged republican (small “r”) citizen. Yet the tools for necessary “tools and skills for us to continue our journey as participants in the world’s longest ongoing experiment” in this highly sophisticated and complicated world include knowledge and wisdom in disciplines much more complicated than that of the founder’s world. Simple participation is not enough, informed participation is what sets apart a representational form of government from mob rule.

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