On Feb. 17, 2020, the ABA House of Delegates passed Resolution 108. The resolution presents a wonderful opportunity to speak again to the importance of civics in American life, even more critical, given events of recent months.
James Casey, Dayton 1988, is a data protection/privacy and transactional attorney with Casey Privacy Contracting in Washington, D.C. He is an adjunct associate professor at The City University of New York and a State Bar of Wisconsin delegate to the ABA House of Delegates
Supported by the Standing Committee on Election Law, Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, Standing Committee on Public Education, Section of State and Local Government Law, and the Law Student Division, the resolution urges all levels of government to facilitate the preregistration of voting by youth between the ages of 16 and 18.
This preregistration will lead to increased youth voting in elections at all levels, but it is critical that civics education be significantly increased in schools to facilitate informed voting. Two paragraphs in Resolution 108 are most important:
FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges state and local educational institutions to adopt robust civic education programs to promote literacy in the institutions of American government, the methods of active civic participation in elections and governance, and a solid foundational understanding of the role and crucial importance of the rule of law; and
FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal governments to enact legislation, promulgate regulations, and appropriate sufficient funds to implement voter preregistration and civics education as called for by this resolution.
But the importance of civics education in the nation’s schools goes beyond voting.
The next section addresses another topic that has generated great interest over the past twenty years – the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and their increasing importance in U.S. society. These disciplines are tied to another critical topic – innovation. This section also discusses the linkage between STEM disciplines and civics education, and how civics education is just as important as STEM education. Given the upheaval within the U.S. since the November 2020 election, it is essential that civics education and STEM education be considered co-equals in a stronger U.S. educational system.
The STEM Disciplines and Innovation
Alan Leshner’s well written editorial in the May 27, 2011, issue of Science Magazine, entitled “Innovation Needs Novel Thinking,” highlights the important linkages between the STEM disciplines and innovation in ensuring that the U.S. economy remains at the forefront of global economic growth.
This section of his editorial struck me as vitally important:
In addition, innovation often comes from nontraditional thinking, and many new ideas will come from new participants in science and engineering who often are less tied to traditional ways. That argues for increasing the diversity of the scientific human resource pool, adding more women, minority, and disabled scientists, as well as researchers from smaller and less-well-known institutions. The benefits of increasing diversity by fostering innovation and economic success have been argued well elsewhere (see citation in original article). Both research institutions and funders need to attend more to these sources of novel thinking and may have to refine recruitment, reward, and funding systems accordingly.
The ideas he outlined in his editorial, furthermore, can find a kinship with points made by Federal Reserve Chairperson Ben S. Bernanke in his speech entitled “Promoting Research and Development: The Government’s Role,” given at Georgetown University on May 16, 2011. As Bernanke says:
At the same time, critics of K-12 education in the United States have long argued that not enough is being done to encourage and support student interest in science and mathematics. Taken together, these trends suggest that more could be done to increase the number of U.S. students entering scientific and engineering professions.
The commentary by Bernanke and Leshner are absolutely on point. The United States needs increasing numbers of graduates who are skilled in the STEM disciplines if it is to remain a dominant economic power.
But that objective is only part of the goal of increasing innovation and economic wealth. The innovation environment needs to be expanded beyond STEM.
Expanding the Context of Innovation
While focusing on the STEM disciplines is a meritorious approach to increasing innovation and wealth creation in the United States, it does not cover the entire universe of what is necessary to create an innovation society.
Attention to non-STEM areas – such as civics – is critical to creating an innovation society. Civics is the broad area encompassing such disciplines as history, law, and political science. An educated and engaged citizenry is critical to the creation of an innovation economy in the United States.
One can find the genesis of law and innovation in the U.S. Constitution. Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, of the Constitution empowers the U.S. Congress to:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
This clause serves as the constitutional bedrock for U.S. intellectual property law. This is the first clue that technology and innovation is not solely a STEM concern.
The May 2011 ABA Journal discusses these issues in an excellent article entitled, “Flunking Civics: Why America’s Kids Know So Little.” The article says the following with regards to a focus on certain disciplines:
Since the late 1990s, when American students tested poorly in reading, science and math against students from 20 other Western nations, federal education policy has focused strongly on those three subjects at the expense of history, social studies, government and civics.
That trend began in 2001 with the Bush Administration’s landmark No Child Left Behind Act, which gives priority to federal funding for efforts to improve student performance in reading and math, skills that are considered fundamental to student success in the workplace. The program continued under the Obama Administration’s support for so-called STEM programs, which rewarded student achievement in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
Educators fear that this long-range focus on a few limited subjects that are considered fundamental to student success is squeezing out the amount of time and effort devoted to subjects considered non-fundamental, such as history, social science, government and civics.
This concern over the “squeezing out” of non-STEM subjects is matched by documented evidence that U.S. students and adults have a very poor grasp of law, history, or government, all of which are considered essential for civic engagement.
The ABA Journal article notes that a 2005 survey by the ABA found that nearly half of all Americans were unable to correctly identify the three branches of government, and a FindLaw survey that same year found that only 57 percent of Americans could name any U.S. Supreme Court justice. Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is quoted in the article as saying:
There are all kinds of polls out there showing that barely one out of three Americans can name the three branches of government, let alone describe what they do.
If the polls are correct in large measure – meaning that most Americans are illiterate when it comes to their government and what it does – how can they function and benefit in an innovation economy? There is more to government than releasing funds to beneficiaries.
The American Bar Association has long had a significant interest in civics education. As noted in the ABA Journal article, the ABA Commission on Civic Education in the Nation’s Schools is co-sponsoring a series of academic events around the country where community leaders can teach students about the law, the Constitution, and the importance of civic engagement.
The commission has supported these activities with other resources, such as a resource guide and a website where law schools, courts, civic organizations, and other organizations interested in sponsoring such a forum can find suggested curriculum, formats, lesson plans, strategies, and other information.
The Connection Between Civics, Voting, and Innovation
It is easy to design a high school or undergraduate course drawing the connection between civics, voting, and innovation. This includes such topics as:
why it is important that civics be taught in grade and high schools and why it is important for the rule of law;
the constitutional basis of copyrights and patents in the U.S. (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8);
the history of inventions in the United States, particularly those of significance;
basic STEM dimensions that bear upon innovation today;
the major laws and regulations impacting innovation today;
current issues in innovation; and
the future of innovation.
This approach – tailored for a specific educational level – would help engage all students in the concepts of innovation and raise the level of civic engagement in the area of innovation. Such a course would educate all, not just students engaged in the STEM disciplines or majoring in those areas.
Conclusion: Strong Civics Curriculum is Needed
A strong civics curriculum at the grade, high school, and college levels would benefit the U.S. in several ways.
As exemplified by ABA Resolution 108, a robust dedication to teaching civics at all levels, coupled with voter preregistration between the ages of 16 and 18, would lead to increased and informed youth voting. U.S. democracy is strengthened by these improvements. There is more to U.S. democracy than the internet, Facebook, and Twitter. Students must be well versed in U.S. history, law, politics, and civic engagement.
A U.S. citizenry educated in civics and STEM (or STEAM as the new acronym – adding arts) will also go a long way to creating a culture of innovation. If America truly wants an innovation society that creates wealth for all its people, then the education of America’s youth will have to go far beyond the STEM disciplines.
Students will learn that true innovation in the United States stems from democracy and a largely capitalist economic system. Increased civics education, increased voting, and increased STEM education will lead to continued U.S. success in a global economy.
A strong civics curriculum is even more critical given the events within the United States since November 2020, particularly the insurrection on January 6, 2021. The need for an informed citizenry has not been greater than now, and that begins with our youth.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Nonresident Lawyers Blog. Visit the State Bar Divisions page or the Nonresident Lawyers Division webpage to learn more about division membership.