Civic engagement in the classroom and the boardroom

“Everybody has a part of the civics obligation. It doesn’t matter about your profession or social environment. You are an American, and that’s something we are all equal in,” former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said at the United States Chamber of Commerce Civics Forward summit 

Civics knowledge and public engagement are at an all-time low and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants to reverse that.   

Recently, it kicked off its new Civics Forward initiative with a summit in Washington D.C. to promote awareness of civics education, both in the classroom and the boardroom. 

The Sept. 27 summit brought together leaders in business, education, journalism and politics to talk about why civics education matters. 

“For decades, every measure of civic knowledge has shown a decline and it’s in a danger zone,” said Carolyn Cawley, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and president of the nonprofit U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation that is spearheading the initiative.

Informed and active citizens make for a stronger country, a stronger economy, and a stronger workforce, she said. 

The foundation has partnered with the Harvard Business Review to create a program featuring CEOs speaking about how “civics and civility” are important in their workplaces. The foundation is sending it to chambers of commerce and “giving it free to anyone who wants to use it,” Cawley said.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey and Arizona Board of Regents member Karrin Taylor Robson attended the summit to talk about the importance of students learning civics in school. 

“Civil discourse is not something you’re born with,” Robson said in a panel at the summit. “The ability to advocate or articulate is not something you’re born with, it’s something that must be developed. In a free society, a self-governing society, if we fail to teach that we’re going to be in a situation largely as we see today.”

Civics education is defined as the study of theoretical, political and practical aspects of citizenship as well as what a citizen’s rights and duties are in society. 

According to a 2016 Annenberg Public Policy Center survey, only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government. That same year, only 23 percent of eighth-graders performed at or above proficient levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam. 

“Sandra Day O’Connor, who is a very proud Arizonan and the first female on the United States Supreme Court, was maybe the first to alert to the crisis, she said this is a quiet crisis in our country,” Ducey said at the summit. “I think this is something that we didn’t lose all that long ago, this is not an intractable problem. This is something we can fix.”

“I knew that this was missing inside our school system,” Ducey added. “I saw the scores of how our children were scoring on civic exams. We all saw the jokes on Jay Leno, and I think to a certain degree that was funny for a while and then it became somewhat horrifying.” 

In 2015, Ducey signed the American Civics Act (H.B. 2064), making Arizona the first state to pass a law requiring a high school civics test. Under the law, all Arizona high schoolers must pass the same citizenship test that is given to immigrants. 

In 2018, Ducey signed Senate Bill 1444, which expanded on Arizona’s civics education by creating the American Civics Education Pilot Program for grades 9-12. Students in the program had to take at least one semester of an American civics course and take an assessment at the end.

That same year, Ducey also signed H.B. 2561 which created the State Seal of Civics Literacy Program to recognize and reward students for achieving a high level of proficiency in American civics. 

“It’s something we must fix,” Ducey said. “There’s no time like the present and I think beginning with civics is the proper place to start but it’s got to be larger than just civics. It’s got to be about our citizenship.”

In April, the Arizona Board of Regents announced its inaugural Regents’ Cup, “a university-wide debate competition designed to encourage and enrich democratic engagement among university students.”

“Nearly 60 percent of college students believe that the universities should shut down speech that they find offensive. Nearly 40 percent of college students believe that it’s appropriate to shut down speakers they don’t agree with,” Robson said. “In Arizona…we are going to have a competition, a debate competition amongst our three universities where hopefully we will showcase the skills training necessary to compete in a self-governing free society.” 

According to Robson, it is important to provide students with the proper foundation for activity, participation, engagement and civil discourse. The Regents’ Cup embodies those values.

In an opinion piece for Chamber Business News, Robson quoted O’Connor Institute Chief Executive Officer Sarah Suggs, saying, “The spirit of the Regents’ Cup is reflective of Justice O’Connor’s career – one that was epitomized by respect and civil discourse. There is no better place to showcase the art of civil discourse than our nation’s college campuses, incubators for leaders of the future – in Arizona and throughout the world.”

To watch a free webcast of the summit, go to CivicsForward.

Victoria Harker

Emily Richardson

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