Democracy works best when the people understand it

Gordon Stewart
Gordon C. Stewart is a Presbyterian minister.
Submitted photo

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.

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.

Consider for a moment why the teaching of civics is so important. This is a true story told by an election judge following Tuesday's 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.

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"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."

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.

Whether one is pleased or disappointed by last Tuesday'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 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, Minn., moderator of First Tuesday Dialogues, and a guest commentator on MPR's All Things Considered and He is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.