On the heels of recent violence in the nation’s capital, insightful educators across the state switched scheduled lesson plans to refocus their instruction on the teachable moments that were playing out in front of us.
As The Columbian’s Meg Wochnick reported, Mountain View High School history teacher Dan Larson paused a lesson on World War I to discuss the importance of being “thoughtful, critical thinkers” in the light of the developments in Washington, D.C. In Spokane, meanwhile, veteran government teacher David Stedman began reviewing the certification process for electoral votes and by the next day was discussing the events that had led to the mayhem, according to The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review.
The reality is, as state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal told both reporters in a prepared statement, “Our young people are watching these events unfold and they are looking to us for contextualization.”
Thanks to the wisdom of lawmakers, high school students in Washington are fortunate that state graduation requirements now include a semester of instruction in civics. These are lessons that should go a long way in helping our teens understand at least some of what has been playing out in recent years in the halls of government and at the ballot box.
But clearly, more civics education is needed – and not only for teens. How many of us all truly understand the workings of the Electoral College system – including how far Vice President Mike Pence’s authority extends?
How many of us know the three branches of government and understand each branch’s separate powers and authority? Well, the highly regarded Annenberg Public Policy Center reported four years ago that only one in four Americans were able to name the branches: executive, legislative and judicial.
Meanwhile, less than a year ago, Forbes magazine reported that the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation discovered 90 percent of immigrants who took the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Civics Test passed the exam, but only a third of native-born Americans did so.
Our democracy depends on us understanding how our government works, including its powers and limits. Our democracy depends on us understanding the Constitution, its amendments and the electoral system. Without knowledge of these fundamentals, we can be too easily manipulated and led to believe misinformation and lies.
The League of Women Voters, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, was founded the same year the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, in large part to help prepare women to exercise their newly acquired right to vote. Our vision is a democracy where every person has the desire, the right, the knowledge and the confidence to participate.
And as an organization that welcomes all, we fully recognize we can best protect our democracy through education and understanding.
There are plenty of places both adults and youth can turn to increase their understanding of civics.
The Washington Secretary of State’s office and website at www.sos.wa.gov is one. And the League of Women Voters of Clark County (lwvclarkcounty.org) regularly hosts free presentations and workshops, often in partnership with other organizations, including the Fort Vancouver Regional Library. The League also periodically offers courses for which a modest fee is charged through Clark College’s Economic and Community Development program.
Nancy Halvorson and Jane Johnson are co-presidents of the League of Women Voters of Clark County. Judy Zeider is the organization’s civic education committee chair.