Let’s talk civics

Here is a pop quiz. The answers appear at the end of this column.

1. May an impeached president continue in office?

2. In general terms, what is the process for enacting a new law?

3. Can laws be enacted outside the legislative process, and, if yes, how and by whom may this be done (and where)?

4. What is the Great Compromise?

5. How old must one be to become a United States senator?

6. In the event of a deadlock in the Electoral College, what role does the Supreme Court have in deciding who will be the next president?

7. There are 50 stars on an American flag. How many of these represent official states of the Union? What do the other stars represent?

8. What is the legal difference between the two?

If you went to school starting in the mid-1970s, do not be surprised if you cannot answer most of these questions correctly.

Before that time, our schools (public, private, parochial) included a course called civics, which the New Oxford Dictionary defines as “the study of the rights and duties of citizenship.” Merriam-Webster adds “how government works” to its definition.

Seemingly overnight, civics courses disappeared from school curricula without so much as a whimper of protest.

In one way, at least, the disappearance is understandable, according to the Brooklyn-born actor Richard Dreyfuss. “Civics,” he once said, “has reached the iconic level of most boring word in the history of the English language.”

Boring or not, the importance of teaching civics cannot be overstated, according to Dreyfuss. “By not teaching it,” he said some years back, “we drift off into the netherland of not knowing right from wrong and good from evil. And that’s why good men wake up in the morning and do evil things.”

Worse, we lose the sense of what it means to be “a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” to quote Abraham Lincoln. Voter participation is nothing for the Republic to brag about.In the 2014 midterm elections, for example, the turnout of eligible voters was the lowest since 1942 — 36.3 percent. In New Jersey, with a Senate race on the ballot, the turnout was 30.4 percent, eighth lowest in the nation. New York, which had a gubernatorial race, recorded the fifth lowest turnout in the entire country — 29.5 percent.

Statistics like these are nothing new, which is why Dreyfuss in 2008 founded “The Dreyfuss Civics Initiative,” which describes itself as “a non-profit, non-partisan organization that aims to revive the teaching of civics in American public education to empower future generations with the critical-thinking skills they need to fulfill the vast potential of American citizenship.”

Dreyfuss himself puts it much more simply: “To teach our kids how to run our country, before they are called upon to run our country….If we don’t, someone else will run our country.”

As TDCI’s website explains, “Through grassroots programs and curriculum enhancement, The Dreyfuss Civics Initiative can influence the preparation of young students for informed and active citizenship. Our programs seek to mold leaders who can run our country effectively and respectfully in accordance with civic virtue.”

Another element of the initiative is the civics discussion club, which “serves myriad purposes,” according to the website. “First, American students can improve their ability to logically assess a problem in terms of civic virtue and debate their contentions respectfully. If we can raise enough leaders with these sets of skills, hopefully we can curb the political strife that extremism has caused in America.”

Civics began to go out of fashion in the 1960s, an era of political assassinations and antiwar protests. The political scandals of the early 1970s, and especially Watergate, turned many people off of politics, and schools off of teaching civics, except in a most perfunctory and unexciting way.

Cynicism, Dreyfuss once said, “is probably the worst characteristic that man has. It’s like a mule. It has no offspring. It gives us nothing but smirk. And we’ve now reached a point where we have a 100 percent agreement in this country that anything a politician says publicly is inauthentic.”

“We are the only nation in history bound by ideas only…,” he has said. “And if each new generation of Americans is not taught those ideas, and taught and taught and taught with rigor and pleasure, we are not bound.”

Dreyfuss is determined to push the teaching of civics back onto school curricula. In the interest of full disclosure, he is being aided in this effort by his public relations counsel, who happens to be my son, Juda. We can help by donating to his cause, of course, but we also need to encourage our day schools and yeshivot to upgrade their civics courses.

Dreyfuss’ mission may be one of the most important ones in the first decades of the 21st century. If it fails, heaven help us all.

Serious civics courses are missing from Jewish curricula, despite the fact that Jewish law requires us to show concern for the community at large (more about that in two weeks). Jewish students perhaps have an even greater need to understand how America works than students of Christian backgrounds, because this knowledge is the best way to protect ourselves from efforts to diminish our freedom to be Jews and Americans at the same time.

Our children have little sense of what America means to Jews because they take America for granted and have little understanding of how precarious Jewish life was “over there.” We need to give them that sense—and a sense of pride in America.

And now to the answers for the pop quiz:

1. Yes. Impeachment is a fancy word for indictment. A trial must be held before an elected official must step down.

2. A bill is introduced into a legislature, studied, debated, and then voted upon. A requisite number of votes is required for passage, and usually the executive branch must sign the bill into law.

3. In 26 states and the District of Columbia, ordinary citizens may petition to get laws on the general election ballot. New Jersey and New York are not among the 26.

4. The Founding Fathers could not decide between a proportionately representative legislature, or one in which each state has an equal say, so they chose both.

5. A United States senator must be 30 years old at the time of taking office.

6. The Supreme Court has no role in deciding Electoral College deadlocks. The 18th Amendment gives that role to the House.

7. Of the 50 stars, 46 represent “states,” while four represent “commonwealths.”

8. There is no legal difference between a “state” and a “commonwealth.”

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at www.shammai.org.
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