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We need vibrant civics training

Citizens ought to understand the workings of government

Published: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT
John Thies

In David Lemons, generations of students have had a passionate teacher whose methods for demystifying government were, as I look back on them, genius.

Lemons taught civics, American government, American political behavior, and other subjects at my alma mater, Urbana High School. He used techniques that made learning about our political system fun – such as the “mock” political conventions he led at the University of Illinois Assembly Hall, which included participants from high schools all over the state.

There was great excitement when thousands of teenagers were brought together to play the roles of campaign managers, delegates, the press, and others with all the signage, speeches, and fanfare you might see at the real political conventions (including the balloons).

But, there was a greater point that Lemons knew well: Citizens in a free society must understand how their government works if that society is to remain free. They must understand their civil and human rights, and the value (and even brilliance) of divided government with co-equal and independent branches. 

On this Law Day, as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech, we should remind our children of the struggles that brought this government and these rights to life.

The sort of civics education our children need has been under threat for years. As has been noted, civics education throughout our nation continues to receive decreasing support. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan observed in 2011 that more than ever, the social studies are not a luxury, but a necessity.

At the Illinois State Bar Association, we provide teachers with significant resources for their use in teaching students about government and our system of rights and responsibilities.

This year, we are devoting extra energy to initiatives designed to help ensure that our three branches of government remain co-equal, strong and independent. These initiatives have placed attention on the need for adequate court funding, and the importance of minimizing the role of politics in judicial selection – both keys to having truly divided government.

All of us should champion the importance of quality civics education before our respective school boards, at service clubs, and in letters to the editor. We need to make the point that civics education plays an important role in a healthy democracy and should be placed on at least the same level as other portions of the curriculum.

Thus, I want to congratulate David Lemons and teachers like him who have educated (and continue to educate) so many about how government works, citizen rights and responsibilities, and the importance of maintaining each of the three branches of government in order to preserve a free society.

Their efforts are in sync with the Illinois State Bar Association’s commitment to preserving the rule of law, and will pay dividends for generations to come. All of us should continue to encourage and support them.

Note to readers – John E. Thies is the 136th president of the Illinois State Bar Association. He practices law with the Urbana law firm of Webber & Thies, P.C.

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