- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006

Among the most popular political parties is a public display of infighting. The extreme left of the Democratic Party is unwilling to accommodate Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s support of the current war effort. Within the Republican Party, a faction professes zero accommodations should be afforded to any illegal immigrant, while others believe in some kind of amnesty or guest worker status. Center-left-leaning Republicans are referred to as RINOS, or Republicans In Name Only, because they share the more liberal positions held by the Democrats.

Although understandable, that not every member of a political party is totally agreeing with an adopted political platform, the public discourse that revolves around dissenting opinions has become reprehensible. For anyone not understanding the nuances at play, it is confusing at best and contributes to the public mistrust of the agenda promoted by anyone in government, further resulting in voter apathy. Political parties are supposed to provide forums for deliberation about public policies; exercising civil discourse, rather than hate-mongering.

A dying breed, “participatory citizens” demonstrate working knowledge of how government functions and actively participate in their communities. They understand which levels of governmental agencies are responsible for changing, enforcing, or developing a specific policy. Ignorance of the division of roles and responsibilities between the three government branches results in hyperbolic finger-pointing, and the proper channels for change are ignored.

Citizens are entitled to speak out about and influence what the government should do about problems in their state, nation, or even around the world. However, they must first understand whether policy is made at the local state or national level.

They should recognize whom to address with a suggestion or grievance. Multitudes of government officials involved in public policy are elected, appointed and hired to make, apply or enforce laws. Unless “participatory citizens” can “see the forest for the trees,” those trying to perform their civic duty will be caught up in rhetoric designed to deflect from the real issues and cast doubt on officeholders’ integrity.

Superior civic education is designed to increase knowledge of law/legal concepts, understanding of the political process and government structures, understanding of rights, responsibilities, and the role of a citizen, understanding of how to influence government policy, and understanding of how to participate in civil society. Quality programs foster respect for rights and opinions of others by promoting civil discourse.

Toward this end, innovative school districts are adding service-learning opportunities to social studies curricula. Service-learning enhances what classroom instruction with learning outside the school. Authentic as well as simulated experiences offer students opportunities to apply new academic skills and knowledge in real-life situations.

Though many have opportunities to volunteer, service-learning activities integrate experiences into and enhance the academic curriculum. Service-learning focuses on community effect and student learning.

At the other end of the spectrum, school districts concerned only with elevating reading and math scores miss a golden opportunity to integrate content learning in social studies, while meeting literacy objectives. This establishes a dangerous precedent because, without an adequate understanding of U.S. history and our system of government, the populace will be unable to function effectively as citizens, knowledgeable voters, members of juries and community leaders.

We are at a crossroads. Schools must arm our students with the knowledge and experience to ensure this experiment in democracy is allowed to continue. Or else, as Abraham Lincoln suggested in his “Gettysburg Address” a government, “of the people, by the people, for the people,” shall perish from this Earth.


President of The Basics Project, a non-profit, non-partisan research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of important political, legal and social issues.

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