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Opinion: Why civic education is critically important to society

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In my professional roles, I enjoy taking action to improve our community, particularly for the next generation of southwest Missourians. To that end, I’m passionate about civic education, i.e., what and how we teach children about the basic rights and obligations of being good citizens in society. 

This year, Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association members have participated in a Wiffle ball league, and it’s been a great success. Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying the start of my son’s baseball league. These communal activities have served as my inspiration for more civic education.

I’m not the first to draw comparisons between the game of baseball and civics. I even had a law professor at University of Arkansas who devoted a whole course to the topic of baseball and the law. But until now, I hadn’t really scrutinized how the activity, particularly at the 8-year-old level, serves as an apt vessel to talk about civic education, its importance and how we all can pitch in.

If you took a drive down to Mount Vernon on a Tuesday or Friday evening this month, you would find dozens of families and friends cheering on kids playing baseball at the Spirit of 76 Park. It is a community, and within the community are smaller communities of the teams themselves. The players are excited; they are laughing with their friends, hoping to have some good hits and occasionally wandering about in the outfield. It is a mini society for the night and there are rules everyone lives by. The rules make things fair and reasonably predictable in a way that still allows space for individual and collective growth and aptitude. We do this because we, the people, value what’s happening – the experience itself, the outcomes, the excitement of watching that personal and collective growth. The contributions of each team member form an experience we simply can’t get on our own.

Much like the rules and norms of baseball, civic education provides the framework for our kids to understand how to interact and live peacefully with others so that in their lives they can likewise experience individual and collective growth. I think of it this way: 

  1. I am a person (player No. 4 or a person in the crowd).
  2. You are a person (player No. 2 or a person in the crowd).
  3. We can agree it’s important to have a sense of security for basic needs and that our well-being matters. In baseball land, we can hopefully agree that we’ve showed up to do a thing – play a game – and we’re committed to doing it in a sensible and fair way.
  4. We can also agree that I have no higher right to pursue these necessities and improvement to my welfare than you do, and vice versa.
  5. Either one of us can be selfish and fearful, and that can make us act in ways that aren’t fair to each other at times.
  6. There are circumstances in my life that have made it easier to get some of my needs and wants met compared to other people, and maybe that is true, or the opposite is true, for you.
  7. We can see all of these things at play and desire a world that gives each of us the best shot at living a meaningful life in service to ourselves and others.

Civic education is how we teach people to navigate this complex world of needs, wants, selfishness and fear without a dumpster fire of a world. It provides the rules and structure we need to subsist with other people on this planet.

So, what does civic education entail? Respect – for ourselves and others, and for the rules. Fairness – in our dealings with one another and in adjusting to level the playing field. Responsibility – for how we act and how our actions impact others. Engagement – in how the rules impact you and those around you and in discussions about changes to keep things fair and just.

Without good civic education, do you know what happens? We stop understanding one another and plunge into our selfish and fearful natures. In the youth baseball context, without some basic structure, these 7- and 8-year-old boys would probably play together for a bit. But before long, I can all but guarantee you the situation would descend into an unpredictable mishmash with in-groups and out-groups, where no one is behaving at their best potential. There is just too much uncertainty and discord – basically a dumpster fire where no one feels particularly good about themselves or the situation they’re in. It starts to look an awful lot like a world with fear-mongering politics.

So, if you find yourself at a sporting event, art show, science fair or some other experience where individuals are coming together under a logical framework with rules or structure to make the process fair, reasonably predictable and respectful for all individuals involved, see the civic education at play and participate in it. Encourage kids in your orbit to do their best, not only for their own well-being, but for the well-being of those around them. Teach them to do the right thing, i.e., show due respect to their teammates and the players on the other team, abide by the rules and always keep fairness at the forefront.

Consider how the individual expression involved with any of these group activities is laudable and worthy in and of itself. And beyond that, when you bring people together with a system that stresses fairness and collegiality, there is something even greater that can come out of the experience for all involved. Civic education teaches us how to do that.

You don’t have to throw the first pitch, but do what you can.

Jarica Oeltjen is deputy general counsel at FORVIS LLP and president of the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association. She can be reached at


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