O'Connor civics commission draws a road map toward freedom of expression. Will schools follow it?

Students learn best when they're allowed to discuss controversial issues important to their lives, and when they are made participants in the governance of their schools.

These are not the bumper-sticker slogans of civil-liberties activists. They are among the conclusions in a groundbreaking new report, "Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools," that is the product of some of America's best thinkers from law, government and education, across all ideological perspectives.

The report, released Sept. 15, was produced by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, a group co-chaired by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and by former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton.

The O'Connor commission's inquiry was spurred by findings from the Annenberg Public Policy Center that Americans of all ages lack fundamental "civic literacy" skills, such as understanding how Congress and the Supreme Court work. (Example: only one-third of Americans can accurately name all three branches of the federal government.) Asking people who have never learned foundational civics lessons to intelligently participate in elections (and in post-election governing) is like expecting a person who knows only one-third of the alphabet to write a novel.

Read in its entirety, the "Guardian" report is a diagnosis for which robust scholastic journalism is the prescribed cure.

Among the report's recommendations:

  • "Schools should incorporate discussion of current local, national, and international events into the classroom, particularly those that young people find important to their lives."
  • "Schools should offer opportunities for young people to get involved in their schools or communities outside of the classroom."
  • "Schools should encourage student participation in school governance."
The report even identifies "news comprehension" as part of the package of "twenty-first century skills" that prepare young learners for participation in the workplace as well as the political marketplace. The rest of that package includes: "speaking, listening, collaboration, community organizing, public advocacy, and the ability to gather and process information." These, concludes the commission, are the foundational "civic skills" that no student should graduate without.
If this sounds familiar, it should. It is the package of benefits that accompanies a well-funded journalism program in which students are, under light supervision and guidance, empowered to critique school programs and to discuss the hot-button issues on which they soon will be asked to vote.

The report challenges school administrators to elevate the discussion of civics from the dry texts of history to "an emphasis on how citizens can and must participate in civic life." This, too, is accomplished best in a school that values, supports and liberates journalism. Meaningful participation in school governance necessarily implies the ability to criticize the school's shortcomings and propose solutions -- a right that thin-skinned administrators, who believe they are teaching obedience school and not high school, too often deny their students.

The "Guardian" report stops short of explicitly diagnosing or proposing solutions to the scourge of censorship that afflicts school discourse -- but the direction in which it points is unmistakable. Restraining inquiry into, and discussion of, public-policy issues of concern to students is not just bad for journalism. It's bad for America.

Tagged: Civic Engagement, First Amendment