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Conference urges civics education.

Byline: CHALK TALK By Pat Farr For The Register-Guard

Civics education - simply described as teaching the process and function of local, state and national government, as well as community service organizations - has been significantly de-emphasized at American middle and high schools during the past three decades.

The result is an ever-widening group of young people entering the work force or higher education whose apathy about what happens in government leads to less involvement in decision-making. This is characterized by much lower voter turnout in Americans age 18 to 26.

While many schools offer excellent advanced placement government classes, most do not require students to study civics. The 1960s and 1970s ushered in a growing distrust of government. The Vietnam War's national unpopularity gave rise to a generation that did not believe the government was effectively representing them. As interest in learning civics waned, so did curriculum teaching civics.

Consequently many people have little understanding of how to get involved with decision-making at the local, state and national levels. This leaves much decision-making in the hands of elected officials and a few active citizens. Few people disagree that broader involvement creates more judicious decisions.

I recently attended the Congressional Conference on Civic Education in Washington, D.C. Organized by the Alliance for Representative Democracy, the event drew delegates from all 50 states. The conference was a result of the efforts of a broad cross-section of executive, legislative and judicial interests, and was funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

The purpose of the conference was to define the need for civic education and identify means to return civics to the classroom. That's no easy task, given that federally mandated programs - namely President Bush's "No Child Left Behind Act - place strong emphasis on English, math and science. Keeping civic education on par with those core subjects is indeed a daunting task, but it's one we must address if we are going to engage the next generation in essential decision-making.

The conference involved two full days of intense discussions, with a range of guest speakers that included educators and elected officials. Panel discussions focused on civic engagement; ensuring a proper civic education; the role of professional development in civic education; and existing programs in civic education.

Attendees heard from representatives from the White House as well as U.S. Sens. John Glenn, Tom Daschle and Lamar Alexander. A couple of quotes that stood out: "Many Americans do not know how to get involved, which leads to a small number of citizens driving the entire process;" and "America cannot afford to become a nation of sheep. A country of sheep must in time beget a government of wolves."

The overwhelming majority of conference delegates endorsed four principles at the conclusion:

Civics should be a central purpose of education, essential to the well-being of representative democracy;

Civic education should be seen as a core subject with well-defined state standards, taught effectively at each grade level.

Policies that support quality teacher education are important to ensure effective classroom instruction.

Classroom programs that foster an understanding of fundamental constitutional principles, including community service, current events and simulations, are essential to adequate civic education.

Along with me, Oregon's delegation included Barbara Rost, program director for classroom law projects; Dr. Patrick Burk, the Oregon Department of Education's deputy superintendent for education policy; and James Sager, the governor's education policy adviser.

I hope to help boost awareness in Oregon of the importance of involving this generation and future generations of students in what's happening in local, state and national government. The result will be better decision-making and ultimately better government.

A key challenge is that the rhythm of politics is very different from the rhythm of daily life for today's kids. While information in real life is instant, democratic government is a far more deliberative process. If we can teach in a manner that captures kids' attention and fosters patience in the sometimes snail-like pace of government, we can indeed be confident that we will leave our great country to a new generation that will make us even greater.

Pat Farr of Eugene represents Oregon's 14th House District and is vice chairman of the House Education Committee. A former city councilor, Farr is the father of three children, ages 22, 19 and 16.
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Title Annotation:Attendees learn the importance of the governmental process; Schools
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 13, 2003
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