Standards for Citizens

`IF once the people become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves.''

So warned Thomas Jefferson, who spent a lifetime thinking and writing about - and serving in - the American experiment with democracy.

Yet the Nov. 8 election, with its fierce, closely fought congressional races and controversial ballot initiatives, lured only 38.7 percent of voters to the polls. One can argue whether nonvoters were showing aggravation or apathy, a sense of contempt or content. But clearly they were ``inattentive'' to their duty as citizens.

Voting, of course, is only one manifestation of citizenship. Participating in a political campaign, running for public office, and serving on a jury are other obvious ones. Even duties such as paying taxes, performing military or other national service, and obeying the law are a part. In all these responsibilities, there is a need for more faithful public participation.

A set of curriculum guidelines for civics education, called the National Standards for Civics and Government, was announced Nov. 15. Unlike the voluntary standards for American and world history announced earlier this fall, they did not prove controversial.

The new standards suggest what a student in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades ought to understand about the way the American political system works. Fourth-graders, for example, should know how limits on government protect personal freedoms, like the right to express one's opinion publicly, to associate with others, and to own property. Eighth-graders should learn how government is a forum for competing ideas, some of which become laws binding on the entire group. Twelfth-graders should be able to go beyond diagramming the three branches of government to explain how our real-world democracy works, including the roles special-interest lobbying groups and the news media play.

It's unfortunate that these sensible civics standards have generated little discussion in the press. A controversy might have helped them gain more attention. But 22,000 copies are headed toward educators and government officials at all levels. Perhaps they will help spark a renewal of interest in civics education.

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