Our View: Timing is right for mandatory civics education

March 5, 2019 GMT

We’ve all heard the reports: When it comes to basic knowledge of civics, today’s high school and college students barely know a vote from a veto.

Well, maybe it’s not really that bad, but the lack of knowledge about our government and how it works is dire enough that Minnesota legislators are again attempting to pass a bill that would require high school juniors and seniors to take a for-credit civics class.

The bill is being carried by Sen. Carla Nelson (R-Rochester) in the Senate and Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Acton Township) in the House. There are numerous co-sponsors from both parties. A similar bill passed both houses last year, only to fall to then-Gov. Mark Dayton’s veto of an omnibus bill.

Both sponsors said at a news conference last week that our democratic system of government is at risk if we don’t understand how it works, and why it is worth preserving.

“Knowledge of our state and federal governments has eroded to crisis levels as other subject areas have received increased emphasis in our schools,” said Urdahl, a former history teacher. “The unintended circumstances are damaging to our society.”


Several major national organizations, including the American Bar Association, the Brookings Institute and the National Education Association have released studies recently decrying the near-universal lack of good, solid civics knowledge among American students.

Because this trend has been going on for a couple of decades, it is safe to assume adults have the same shortfall of civics education.

Is the Nelson-Urdahl bill the right way to reverse that trend?

We think so, and urge its approval. We’re also confident that Gov. Tim Walz, a former social studies teacher, will give the bill serious consideration.

But not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. The head of the Minnesota School Boards Association said he doesn’t like the idea of the Legislature mandating curricula and testing. Generally, we agree that it is not always desirable for the state to stick its nose in the business of local school districts.

However, if you feel, as we and many legislators do, that our democracy will suffer irreparable harm if civics education continues to decline, this seems like an appropriate time for a statewide mandate.

Civics education can reinforce the need for civil debate, critical thinking, and hands-on involvement in government, from voting to running for office.

Those are traits and skills much too valuable to our way of life to be allowed to go by the wayside.