On March 29, 2011, the Aspen Institute Justice and Society Program, along with Georgetown Law and iCivics.org, co-sponsored the conference Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age. This major convening, supported in part by the MacArthur Foundation, explored strategies to promote civic learning and participation among young people.
The Justice and Society Program and its partners brought together a diverse group of speakers ranging from celebrated authors and scholars to digital education pioneers from across the country, to discuss these issues before an audience of educators, opinion leaders, and policymakers.
“Barely a third of youngsters can say what the Declaration of Independence was all about … [yet] young people spend about forty hours a week in front of a computer screen,” said retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
To remedy this imbalance, Justice O’Connor founded iCivics, a Web-based educational tool designed to teach students how Supreme Court decisions are made (“Supreme Decision”), how the president’s job works (“Executive Command”), and how immigrants become citizens (“Immigration Nation”) — among other topics.
“A foundation in civics education cannot be a luxury, but is a necessity,” said keynote speaker Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education. Two-thirds of all Americans can’t name all three branches of government, Duncan noted, yet seventy-five percent can name all of the Three Stooges.
“It’s no secret that many young people today find civics and government instruction to be dusty and boring and dull,” Duncan said. “This is a time for us to update civics education for the 21st century.”
Meryl Chertoff, Director of the Justice and Society Program, observed that “understanding the rule of law and the unique role of each of the branches of government is essential to informed and intelligent civic participation. Educating on this early plants the seeds of civic virtue in the young.”
Other notable participants included former U.S. Congressman Lee H. Hamilton; Professor Julie O’Sullivan; Robert Gallucci, President of the MacArthur Foundation and former dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service; Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson; and PBS NewsHour Correspondent Ray Suarez.
Video of the conference is available here.
Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age addressed effective strategies to promote civic learning and participation among today’s youth. As educational needs, modes of civic engagement, and student interests change, so should programs designed to inspire students to become active and informed citizens.