In our opinion: Civic education

Published: Thursday, Aug. 11 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

For all its marvelous benefits, the digital revolution is turning the world inside out.

Scores of newspapers, bookstores and DVD rental outlets have closed up shop in recent years. Road maps, wristwatches and the art of cursive writing have all been rendered nostalgic. Add to the list the U.S. House of Representatives' 169-year-old page program, which House leaders announced is ending due to high costs and advances in technology that make the page job of carrying messages and bills between House buildings and the Capitol obsolete.

It's hard to argue with saving money and eliminating unnecessary functions. But the page program was more than simply a way to communicate information between congressional leaders. It was an investment and a training ground for future of leaders.

Over the years, many congressional representatives got their start as teen pages. The program connected youths directly to their government, giving them an up-close look at the day-to-day activities of their leaders without the spin of media. It also connected them to other smart, civic-minded young people. And it wasn't a program for children of privilege, but for any qualified youth.

The end of the page program is the end of a model civics education program, and it comes at a time when civic education — learning about the rights and duties of citizenship and the functions and history of government — is needed more than ever.

Too many American citizens are not engaged in the political process. And when Americans do become engaged, they often aren't well-informed.

Last week, the Deseret News published a letter arguing against the willingness to compromise in political matters, claiming that if the Founding Fathers had compromised, there would be no Constitution, no Bill of Rights, no United States of America.

Any honest reading of history reveals the exact opposite to be true. As other readers have pointed out, the American experiment was in fact an enormous compromise between delegates from states with vastly different priorities, and the government they established was explicitly designed to require compromise.

It's one thing to disagree on policy prescriptions. It's quite another to disagree on facts, especially basic historical facts about the founding of our nation and structure of our government. Is it any wonder there is gridlock in Washington when elected representatives are accountable to constituencies with wildly divergent ideas not just about policy, but about how government is meant to function?

Concerns about keeping up in a globalized world have led to an emphasis on subjects like math and science in some classrooms, while civic education gets pushed to the side. But the recent inability of Congress to compromise, in part because some voters wouldn't stand for it, demonstrates that robust civic education may be just as important as algebra to America's ability to maintain its standing in the world.

Civic education prepares people to carry out their roles as citizens and to care as much about the welfare of the entire community as individual well-being. The House page program was an investment in civic education that paid dividends over the years as pages grew into mature citizens and leaders on local and national levels. It is unfortunate that the House leadership chose to end the program without attempting to modernize or reform it.

In the absence of the page program, we hope Majority Leader John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi make good on their promise to find other meaningful ways to involve teenagers in government.

Our future could depend on it.

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