Editor's Note: The signature project of President Spruell's year is the iCivics initiative pioneered by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. In Alabama, the project is coordinated through the Civics and Education Subcommittee which is chaired by Bruce Barze and co-chaired by Matt Minner. Over the past few months, the committee, comprised of prominent attorneys, judges, educators and organizational leaders, has formulated a plan for our state. They have been aggressively promoting civic education as a statewide priority and enhancement of any existing civic education programs.

Teachers from school districts throughout the state are participating in webinars to prepare them for using the iCivics curriculum. President Spruell has addressed the need for civics education in speeches to groups such as the Birmingham Kiwanis Club and commissioners John Peek and Cleve Poole met with representatives of the Alabama Education Association to explain how iCivics helps students understand our Constitution and the inner workings of our democracy and our role as individuals. Today there is significantly less understanding and appreciation of our Constitution and its role in preserving freedom. We are producing a generation of citizens ill-equipped to govern themselves as participants in our democracy.

If you are interested in actively supporting this effort and want to help, contact brad.carr@alabar.org.

The article below describes first-hand why we need to get civics education back in our schools.

Democracy Works Best When the People Understand It
By Gordon C. Stewart

After her retirement, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor created "iCivics"–a web-based education project that prepares schoolchildren to be active participants in democracy. Sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice O'Connor had become concerned that school students were not getting the basic information or tools they need for civic participation. She wanted to provide materials for use in classrooms all across the United States, a kind of "See Jane Run" for teaching civics.

A new learning experience
iCivics is ingenious. It uses computer games to engage students in problem-solving in which the student "wins" by mastering knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and essential foundational principles of our nation. Students learn about the division of powers between federal and state governments, and about the separation of powers among executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Justice O'Connor's dream is that iCivics be in every elementary and secondary education classroom in America. No one will leave school without the basic knowledge required for responsible citizenship. The software and teacher materials are free. There is no additional cost to a school district. And the benefits are huge.

A true story
Consider for a moment why the teaching of civics is so important. This is a true story told by an election judge following the November election in Minnesota.

"A husband and wife and their adult son came to the polls at about 7:30 p.m. They were all registered, but the son wasn't certain, so we confirmed. Then, after looking at the ballot, because the three voting booths were being used, the husband asked why we didn't have a U.S. Senate candidate on the ballot. I explained that senators have six-year terms and that neither of our senators was up for reelection this year. Then the wife asked why it was that Michele Bachmann wasn't on the ballot. I explained that her district ran through Woodbury, Stillwater and up into St. Cloud, 60 miles away, and didn't include [our county]. Then the husband asked why it was that there was only one candidate running for mayor. I explained that the current mayor was running unopposed.

"Imagine, if you will, how difficult it was for me to keep my mouth shut and not tell them that they had no business voting."

The duty to vote
According to law the three voters had the right to vote. They also had a duty. Although they clearly had little knowledge and had come to the polls unprepared and uninformed, their three votes counted. Perhaps they were motivated at the last minute by an attack ad on television.

Had our three friends played the games of iCivics, the story might have been different. They would have come prepared. And their preparation might have created a capacity to differentiate between a television ad that demonizes an opponent and one that tells them what the candidate actually stands for.

I wonder how retired Justice O'Connor might have voted in the Citizens United case, which opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate spending on political campaigns and advertising. For all I know she might have voted with the majority. But if so, she would surely be all the more dedicated to the promotion of iCivics to protect us from the corrosion of the electoral process.

An informed citizenry
Whether one is pleased or disappointed by last November's election results, can we all agree that the future of our country depends on an informed citizenry? Only courses such as iCivics will save us from our own worst selves and from the well-funded, anything-but-free speech that dominates our public discourse. You and I may not be financially free to buy the advertising to speak our own mind or to counter misinformation campaigns. But we can promote that the likes of iCivics to educate ourselves, as well as our children, in order to deliver on the high promise of a democratic republic in which "of the people, by the people, and for the people" is a cause for rejoicing.

–Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minnesota, moderator of First Tuesday Dialogues and a guest commentator on MPR's All Things Considered and MPRNews.org. He is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.


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