Opinion: State bill would require civics education for high school graduation

By Sen. Dick McCormack
Windsor District

It requires real effort to focus on anything but Covid-19 and the transfer of power, but life and its lesser concerns go on. A tri-partisan group of senators, including local colleagues Sen. Alison Clarkson, Sen. Mark MacDonald and all three Rutland County senators, are co-sponsoring S.17, a bill I’ve introduced to require civics education for a high school diploma.

The ideological diversity of the bill’s sponsors is important because the basic foundational philosophy and institutions of our nation are bigger than our differences. Fans may disagree on whether a pitch was a ball or a strike, but we can’t play baseball unless we agree that three strikes make an out. So too, we Americans may disagree on a variety of issues, but we must agree on the democratic republican ground rules for disagreeing.

At the center of this area of agreement is the U.S. Constitution, the document that constitutes our government, declares it into existence, structures it, empowers it, limits its powers, and is the binding authority on how we are constituted. The philosophical, moral foundations of our republic are institutionalized in the Constitution, and all American government is directed and limited by it. Every office holder makes an oath to uphold the Constitution. Each American’s rights and liberties are natural rights with which they are “endowed by their creator.” The Constitution identifies these rights and protects them from government violation.  Our citizenry needs to know their Constitution.

The nation is a democratic republic (lower case d and r, not referring to parties). As the name UNITED States indicates, the national republic is a union of democratic republics, each with its own democratic republican constitution. These states govern themselves in part by delegating authority to various levels of municipalities, also subject to the constitutions. A democratic republic, at whatever level, cannot function democratically as a republic without the Demos, the people. Democratic, republican structures may persist, but they are hollow. No Demos, no democracy.

Education has many purposes. Certainly preparing students to support themselves and their families is a central job of our schools. That continues. But there’s nothing new about schools preparing students for citizenship. In fact, it has always been part of American education.

Bills rarely pass exactly as introduced. Legislative committees take testimony, consider studies, discuss, debate, and negotiate. I expect this to be the case with this bill.

As introduced, S.17 suggests that a civics curriculum should include the philosophical concepts of unalienable rights, the contract theory of government, majority rule and minority rights, and republican and democratic principles. The bill also says the curriculum should include the separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, and judicial review. That should get the discussion started.  What DO we agree on? The discussion should be lively and interesting.

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  1. Keith Stern says:

    Tim Roper wrote “How can there be “ideological bias” when the facts of American government systems and processes are are taught as they’re written in our Constitution?” We we see that playing out before our eyes with the nonsensical impeachment of a former president when the constitution is very clear on it. Even chief justice wants no part of it because of the unconstitutionality of it.
    No need to wonder about me Tim. I believe the constitution is very well written and abundantly clear. I don’t know what your motives are for questioning me.

  2. Tim Roper says:

    Surely you aren’t accusing those who are advocating resurrecting the requirement for teaching American Civics in our schools as being tyrants, Mr. Lindberg.

  3. When a student at GMUHS in the 1980’s we all had a rigorous study of civics and the constitution. Thank you Jim Collins, Mike Harty and Fred Willis. Not sure what happened in the last 30 years but apparently someone must have dropped the ball. So sad.

    I wonder how Dick McCormack reconciles his strident atheism with the natural rights “endowed by our creator. If you take a look at his voting record on the Second Amendment along with statements he has made you will find he is philosophically dedicated to the disarmament of law abiding citizens in Vermont and the United States.

    I have also yet to hear Senator McCormack or his colleagues in Montpelier condemn the silencing of free speech by Facebook, Amazon, YouTube and Twitter. I wonder if like so many of the establishment politicians in both the Republican and Democrat Party he considers the right to a redress of grievances, “hate speech”?

    I pray for Dick and those in the halls of power that they all have an epiphany about the tyrannical path they treading.

  4. Tim Roper says:

    How can there be “ideological bias” when the facts of American government systems and processes are are taught as they’re written in our Constitution? Facts are facts; there are no alternative facts regarding the design of our government and the balances included by the framers of our Constitution. Mr. Stern’s statement makes me wonder if he’d like to insert some of his own biases into the curriculum.

  5. kurt voight says:

    This is a great idea. Knowledge makes people less susceptible to simplistic propaganda. We know where that led us recently.

  6. Nick Boke says:

    This can be done without “ideological bias” in the sense that teaching what the constitution says, some major Supreme Court interpretations, and the evolution of what the US government has done over the centuries, plus some other stuff (TBD by whoever puts it together) is pretty basic.

    The roles of local and state governments must also be included, since these are the levels at which young people can most readily see how it all works. And such an experience can be truly transformational by letting the students see what the “demos” in democracy can actually mean.

  7. Keith Stern says:

    The idea sounds great as long as there is no room for ideological bias. We see that far too much in education now.

  8. Tim Roper says:

    American Civics was long required in order to graduate high school and that requirement should absolutely be brought back. Bravo Sen. McCormack; your bill should receive broad, bipartisan support in both houses of the Vermont legislature.