Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service – Civics Made Practical

17 Jan

It’s not just another holiday. In 1994, President Clinton signed legislation – put forward by Sen. Harris Wofford (D – PA) and Rep. John Lewis (D – GA) – which transformed the decade-old holiday. The goal was to challenge Americans to use the day for citizen action and volunteer service. As noted on the official site for the day, “It calls for Americans from all walks of life to work together to provide solutions to our most pressing national problems.”

The legacy of Dr. King is multi-faceted. While he is known as a civil rights pioneer, he also maintained that these rights required the active engagement of all citizens. Civic engagement is a key component of being part of a democratic society.

In the era of standardized testing and teaching to factoids rather than skills that we got from No Billionaire Left Behind, civics has been sadly omitted as a part of regular curriculum. For the record, civics is “the study of the rights and duties of citizenship.” (Oxford Compact Dictionary) Social Studies is often only the residue of the rote names and dates approach to learning, leaving out the active role granted to and required of good citizens.

The Center for Civic Education is working hard to change this circumstance. The Campaign to Promote Civic Education effort is a fifty-state campaign (including the District of Columbia) aimed at restoring the civic mission of our nation’s schools by encouraging states and school districts to devote sustained and systematic attention to civic education from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

In Oregon, civics was dropped as a part of core curriculum in 1997. Recently, a concerned Legislature created the Civics and Financial Education Task Force to address the gaps in civic education. The final report of the task force articulates significant frustration with the current climate in education but does propose a small return to civics education beginning this school year.

The news on civic engagement is not entirely bleak. The 2010 report by the Corporation for National and Community Service showed a surge in volunteerism despite the poor economy. After decades of lackluster turnout, the United States Election Project reports voter turnout has returned to levels near that of 1972. It is heartening to see this kind of civic resurgence. Nevertheless, in this sound-bite-driven, corporate-purchased-election, fact-averse culture, we need to ensure that the rights and responsibilities of effective participation are instilled in students throughout their education, not just as a half-credit add-on.

As you enjoy the holiday, please give some thought to what you do to give back to your community. If you aren’t able to volunteer today, look for an opportunity in your area and commit some time. If there are young people in your life, take the time to make sure they are learning about their role in an active, meaningful democracy. And, just for fun, revisit some civic learning that might just make you smile, because being a part of a free society should also bring us joy.

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