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Recent Events Reveal Urgent Need for Civics Education in the US

If citizens do not have the basic knowledge to defend our democracy, they will be drawn to the delusional and irresponsible declarations and promises of immoral leaders who build their base by spinning lies.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and the American Federation of Teachers have joined to offer free online education programs on human rights and democracy. (Photo: Getty/Stock Photo/TethysImagingLLC)

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and the American Federation of Teachers have joined to offer free online education programs on human rights and democracy. (Photo: Getty/Stock Photo/TethysImagingLLC)

If there was ever a time for a gut-check for America, this is it. A country torn at the seams into factions of progressive reform vs. status quo, Republican and Democrat, vindicated winners and sore, angry losers. A country still unable, 52 years after the death of Martin Luther King, to confront its racism.

For four years now, tensions have escalated under the leadership of a president who demonstrates a deliberate intent to seize upon the average American’s poor understanding of the Constitution as a means to incite violence and division.

Case in point: Donald Trump’s repeated and petulant pleas stoking the fire of a violent, angry mob of white militants desperate to hold on to power despite court-certified results electing Joe Biden by overwhelming margins.

We must make sure the next generation gets the civics education needed to make them responsible and engaged citizens equipped to protect their rights and our country in an informed and responsible manner.

As the events of recent weeks have shown, if citizens do not have the basic knowledge to defend our democracy, they will be drawn to the delusional and irresponsible declarations and promises of immoral leaders who build their base by spinning lies.

A civics education survey published by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania last fall found only half of American adults are able to name all three branches of the federal government. Nineteen percent could not name any First Amendment rights—speech, religion, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government. And when asked what it means when the Supreme Court rules on a case, 54 percent knew the decision is law and needs to be followed, a dip from 59 percent in 2019.  

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We must make sure the next generation gets the civics education needed to make them responsible and engaged citizens equipped to protect their rights and our country in an informed and responsible manner. Yet, all too often, school districts strapped for funds cut where they can, with government curriculum budgets landing on the cutting room floor.

Someday soon, perhaps, more federal and state educational resources can be devoted to such a cause, but with so many efforts currently focused on COVID-19 relief, now is the moment for all of us to step up and fill the void.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and the American Federation of Teachers have joined to offer free online education programs on human rights and democracy, written by teachers for teachers, designed to “meet the moment” to help students learn from the civil rights struggles of the past and then become more engaged with community activism of today.

The launch, held on U.S. Constitution Day, began a project to bring social justice, racial equity, and democratic participation more fully into the classroom, and has been honed to specifically address recent events on the Capitol.

It is our fervent hope that others will join us in this effort, as Sen. Robert Kennedy noted in 1966 that it is youth who possess the world’s best chance to strip from the world its prejudices, its cruelties and divisions, building instead a “world which demanded of each government that it accept its responsibility to insure social justice … of constantly accelerating economic progress—not material welfare as an end in of itself, but as a means to liberate the capacity of every human being to pursue his talents and to pursue his hopes. It would, in short, be a world that we would all be proud to have built.”

Adnan Karim

Adnan Karim is the managing director of human rights education at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.

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