Senator Lesser's Remarks at the Rennie Center on the Condition of Education in Western Massachusetts

“We are rethinking our needs in public education and civics is one of our needs,” said Lesser

HOLYOKE — Today, Senator Eric P. Lesser gave the following remarks at the Rennie Center during the Center’s conference on education in Western Massachusetts, held at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. The audience included business leaders, education researchers, educators and advocates. Senator Lesser addressed the lack of civics education in Massachusetts and the need to promote civics to make students better citizens.


The Missing Piece of a 21st Century Education

Our schools prepare our students for college, for work and for adulthood. But they also have a role in educating the citizen.

I would argue that we’ve been missing a vital component in our students’ education.

That component, I believe, is the ability to debate — to discern what you believe in and use the tools of persuasion to build a path behind you so that others will follow.

Frankly, we are losing in our young people the ability to critically examine information and the desire to use that information as generations before have done: through our democratically elected government.

We are seeing increasing rates of cynicism among young people. Pew Research tells us that Millennials distrust institutions more than any other generation before them did.

We need to teach students to debate with civility. We need to teach students to engage responsibly in a democratically elected government.

We are rethinking our needs in public education and civics is one of our needs.

According to some test results, 45 percent of 12th graders were unable to explain how citizens could change a law.

Last year, in a nationwide poll, only a third of adults could name all three branches of government.

Civics education is no longer required in many states, including right here in Massachusetts. As these studies show, this can have a devastating impact on our system of government and the related lack of trust in institutions.

Civics education is part of the solution to this trust-lessness, this restlessness in a generation that sees mounting problems and missing answers. It is the way to foster trust and foment change at precisely this moment, when our country is more divided than ever and looking for explanations to our society’s most pressing challenges.

Now is the perfect time to be having this conversation, as researchers, educators and advocates come together to rewrite the MCAS for the 21st century.

Now is the perfect time to make our education system dynamic to the needs of every student.

What does it mean to have a high level of education?

I think many of the teachers in this room would agree that it does not just mean parroting back answers, rote memorization, instant intellectual gratification.

I think many of the teachers in this room would agree with me that a high level of education means being able to grapple with tough questions — and being able to cite your sources.

It means being able to tell the difference between “fake news” and fearless reporting — and putting more value on the latter.

Civics is a vital component of this “high level of education.”

A survey of young people published by CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, found that young people who recalled memorable civic education experiences were more likely to vote, to form political opinions, to know campaign issues.

Importantly, civics education does not lead to partisanship.

While it made the students more likely to vote, it did not make them more likely to support one party or one candidate over another.

Put simply, civics education makes students better citizens.

A researcher at Tufts coined the term “Civic Deserts” to describe a place with few civic opportunities. Our schools can be the oasis for teaching those important elements of civic engagement.

But right now, our entire education system is a civic desert as long as civics is not seen as a priority of our students’ education.

School was never meant just to prepare students for careers; it was also meant to teach — to turn students into life-long learners.

What use is an education at all if our students cannot use it to make the world a better place? To strive, to change, to challenge? To use their talents to the fullest? This, after all, is what I would call a “high level of education.”