The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

What Is the Point of Civics Education?

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Gary LesserThere has been a great deal of discussion lately about the lack of civics education in our country. The joke has been made that more Americans can identify all the Kardashian siblings more easily than they could name the U.S. senators from their own state. Whether or not that joke has any validity, the Florida Department of Education recently reported that only 37% of students taking the new Florida Civic Literacy Exam passed the test. It is true that a higher percentage passed the more important end-of-course work, and Florida is a national leader in civics education, but clearly much work remains to be done.

The lack of a basic understanding of our fragile system of government, based on three branches of government and checks and balances on power, is common. A meaningful explanation of the role of each branch of government and how those checks and balances protect us is imperative. An easy explanation can be found in Federalist No. 51, where Alexander Hamilton eloquently and succinctly states that, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

An understanding of these basic tenets is essential to a democracy. Particularly today, as some people view political life like a sporting event — the only thing that matters is that the other team loses. Facts don’t matter, only arguments that sound increasingly angrier. That hyper-partisanship is acidic for the necessary civil discourse to keep a healthy democracy functioning.

Lawyers, judges, and law professors often talk about the “rule of law,” but this term has little actual meaning for everyday citizens, and that needs to change now. The basis of the rule of law is that we are fellow citizens of this state and country, to be treated the same way under our Constitution and our laws. The public’s understanding of these concepts is essential, and that can help moderate the tone — if not the content — of political discourse if done properly.

While increasing civics education in the school system is important, we can also amplify civics education for the “grown-ups” in our great state, and The Florida Bar has a plan for that. To be clear, this is a huge lift and is going to require as many Florida lawyers as possible to help with the Bar’s efforts.

A primary focus of these efforts is making clear the importance of the independent judicial branch, and The Florida Bar has recently revamped and strengthened its civics education offerings, especially the well-regarded Benchmarks program.

The award-winning program sends local lawyers to interested community groups all over Florida. Our country’s system of government depends on members of the public understanding their rights and responsibilities under the Constitution. Kudos to current Constitutional Judiciary Committee Chair Katherine Van de Bogart and last year’s chair, Judge Gary Flower, for improving and expanding the availability of this program.

Benchmarks speakers are available to present to groups like Rotary, Tiger Bay, local chambers of commerce, and other community organizations. Any interested group can request a Benchmarks presentation through The Florida Bar Speakers Bureau.

What can you do as Florida lawyers to help advance greater civics education? Quite a bit actually. First, be on the lookout for “speakers needed” emails that The Florida Bar periodically sends. That means there is an interested community group, and we need a lawyer presenter. You can reach out directly to The Florida Bar to request to be a speaker to a group in your area. Importantly, you can also connect groups in your area to The Florida Bar to receive a Benchmarks presentation, as the more groups we can present to, the better.

Very few “big issues” get solved by a “magic wand,” but we can exponentially expand the reach and impact of Benchmarks with the help of our members speaking and making these important connections to community groups across Florida.

The Benchmarks program is an outstanding resource for Floridians wanting to learn more about the fundamentals of our government and the courts, and a great way for Florida lawyers to get more involved in their communities. Thanks in advance for doing so!