Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been busy the past several months speaking about her pet peeve — the sad state of teaching civics in our public schools.

“Civics education has been all but removed from our schools,” she often remarks. “Too many people do not understand how our political system works. We are currently failing in that endeavor.”

O’Connor cites examples in which Americans could name a judge on “American Idol,” but couldn’t name a single justice on the Supreme Court or the three branches of government.

She’s calling attention to an extremely important problem in the U.S. All too many American citizens don’t understand the country’s democratic system and why it’s crucial to the future of that democracy to stay informed and participate. The Founding Fathers, after all, counted on the citizenry to be the republic’s caretaker and that’s a major reason why they felt so strongly about education.

Unfortunately, schools over the years have been saddled with teaching just about everything but civics, history and the arts. The heralded No Child Left Behind Act, for instance, has forced schools to drop meaningful civics classes so that teachers can “teach to the test,” consisting primarily of math and reading. And now that the Obama administration wants to tie teachers’ pay and promotions to those tests, classes on citizenship will continue to get the short end of the stick.

Historian Diane Ravitch, who early next year will publish her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” insists that the biggest problem in American education is that there is no agreement on why we educate.

“Faced with this lack of consensus, policymakers define good education as higher test scores,” she told the New York Times Magazine recently. “But higher test scores are not a definition of good education.”

She added: “Students can get higher scores in reading and mathematics yet remain completely ignorant of science, the arts, civics, history, literature and foreign languages.

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“Why do we educate? We educate because we want citizens who are capable of taking responsibility for their lives and for our democracy. We want citizens who understand how their government works, who are knowledgeable about the history of their nation and other nations.”

Adds Michael Streich, who has written extensively about the lack of civics education in our schools, “The rote memorization of terms and names will never allow students to understand causes and effect. They will never analyze, trace, discover or master.

“Students may recall through memorization that ‘due process’ is part of the Fifth and 14th Amendments, but under current instructional methodologies they cannot tell you what due process actually is or why it’s important,” he said.

I’m convinced that a major reason we have such uncivil political discourse in our country today can be traced to the fact that too many people don’t understand the responsibilities of citizenship. Educators need to address that before it’s too late.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com