Our nation's founders didn't see eye to eye about many things, but they all saw how critically important education would be to the American experiment. James Madison's famous words can be recited from memory:
"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both. . . ."
Despite advising that "the most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do," Thomas Jefferson devoted more words to lecturing his fellow countrymen on the value of education than perhaps any other subject.
We haven't listened well enough. We haven't learned.
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor told her audience at a New York City conference that "two-thirds of Americans know at least one of the judges on the Fox TV show 'American Idol,' but less than one in 10 can name the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court."
O'Connor is hardly alone in sounding the alarm about students' appalling knowledge of history and the ill health of citizenship education, but not many are going to the lengths she is in search of solutions. She even is helping to design video games she hopes might be able to make learning about things like the Supreme Court hip. Some call it her plan for "joystick justice."
Laugh if you like, but O'Connor shouldn't be ridiculed for grasping at cyberstraws. Such measures would not be necessary if our society was making civic instruction anything approaching a priority. When is the last time you heard a school superintendent or the Department of Public Instruction say that preparing young people to be informed and engaged citizens is the most important thing our schools do? Put another way, when is the last time you heard an educational leader sound like Madison or Jefferson?
There's a reason for that. Our society has sent the schools an unmistakable message: Preparing kids to be part of our economy trumps preparing them to be part of a democracy.
That's why math and science are all the rage. It's why civics is an afterthought. And it explains why people like Sandra Day O'Connor are looking for salvation in video games.