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Encores and Civics


Date posted: December 2, 2011

At the Encore 2011 Conference last night, former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor delivered the keynote speech at the Purpose Prize Awards. In her remarks, she painted a vivid picture of how ignorant Americans have become about how our government works.

320px-US_capitol_building.jpg Where once public schools were primarily intended to educate Americans about how their government works, so that they could play a part in it, whether by running for office, petitioning their representatives, or simply voting, in today’s schools, civic education is losing this central role. There is no room in a curriculum dominated by high-stakes testing in math and reading.

The consequences are many. O’Connor noted that less than a third of Americans could name a Supreme Court Justice, but more than two thirds could name a judge on American Idol. More than two thirds could name all Three Stooges, but less than a third could name the three branches of government. Because we don’t know how our government works, we become detached from it, we get angry at it, we pick up some weird ideas about what’s wrong and how to fix it. Government becomes the enemy, the problem, something to be fought rather than something in which we can play a role in bringing about positive change.

It doesn’t help, she remarked, that civics instruction and the text books used are thick, boring, and too concerned with factlets, like the minimum age necessary to run for the Senate, rather than the bigger picture of how government works and how you can make it work for yourself and for the common good.

O’Conner became interested in game play and the potential of games for education. She worked with James Paul Gee, a leading edugame researcher, to develop iCivics, a series of free, online games that teach civics. Targeted towards middle schools, more than 3 million kids have played and learned. The games latch onto kids’ innate curiosity and affinity towards games, challenging players to solve problems and are good examples of the kinds of options teachers have for 21st century education. And solving problems is one of the key roles that government, particularly the courts, can play. Although the current bitter, partisan divide may make that seem impossible, a new generation of young adults who understand how the Constitution designed and two centuries of practice have refined how our government works can change that.

New generations of adults with no basic understanding of civics are unlikely to make things better. So, let’s get kids playing iCivics, and let’s get civics education back in schools.

Learn more about the Encore 2011 and the Encore Career movement here.