Guest Column: Law Day message: We need vibrant civics education

By John E. Thies
President, Illinois State Bar Association

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

Lemons taught Civics, American Government, American Political Behavior and other subjects during a long and productive tenure 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 that were held at the University of Illinois Assembly Hall and included participants from high schools all over the state. There was great excitement when thousands of teen-agers 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)!

Hosting mock political conventions is just one example of how Lemons taught students about government. 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. For example, we must understand the value and even brilliance of divided government, and especially why it is so important that each of the three governmental branches remain co-equal, strong and independent.

In learning about their government, citizens of a free society must also be taught to understand their civil and human rights. As Thomas Jefferson said, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” Especially on the 150th anniversary of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech (both of which we commemorate on this Law Day May 1), our children need to learn of the struggles that brought these rights to life.

The sort of civics education our children need has been under threat for years. As described in the report of “The Civic Mission of Schools” released in 2003 by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, “for decades, civic education curricula and programs [have] received decreasing amounts of time, money and attention.”

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted in 2011 that the federal No Child Left Behind Act has created “flawed incentives for states and school districts to narrow their curricula to English and math.” Duncan has also stated that “[t]oday more than ever, the social studies are not a luxury, but a necessity.”

Significant emphasis on math and science is not a bad thing. For example, our 12-year-old daughter now attends a program on weekends at her middle school that is a satellite of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. She loves participating in this, and is learning many things that will help her be a more productive part of the technologically sophisticated world that awaits her when she becomes an adult. The problem comes when an emphasis on math and science (or any other subject) comes at the expense of quality civics education.

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. And 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. We should do this 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 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.

John E. Thies is a shareholder with the Urbana law firm of Webber & Thies, P.C. He is the 136th president of the Illinois State Bar Association and may be reached at

Posted May 1, 2013

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