On the Importance of Civic Education

05/13/2015 05:39 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016

I had the tremendous honor this past week of receiving the Constitutional Rights Foundation's Bill of Rights Award for the work I have done in my career to promote and protect the core rights that all of us treasure as American citizens.

But as great of an honor as this award was, it is the men and women of the Constitutional Rights Foundation who deserve to be recognized and honored. There is no greater duty, living in a democracy, than educating future generations about their constitutional rights and responsibilities, teaching them to stand up and make a difference. For more than half a century, the Constitutional Rights Foundation has been doing this noble work in classrooms and communities throughout our nation.

I had the good fortune of seeing their incredible efforts during their 2015 Civic Action Showcase, where 200 students from the greater Los Angeles area came together to discuss and debate important civic issues occurring in their neighborhoods and around the country. It was nothing short of inspiring to watch these great kids with terrific ideas about how they could make a difference in their communities, and to see the teachers helping these bright, engaged young people learn about their rights, their responsibilities and the rule of law.

This type of civic education and civic engagement is needed in school rooms all across our nation now more than ever. Last month, the National Center for Education Statistics released the results from the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress showing that only 23 percent of American eighth graders scored at or above proficiency in civics, and only 18 percent in American history. These numbers are particularly discouraging in the face of the important events that all of us across the country have watched unfold in recent weeks and months. The Constitutional Rights Foundation does an incredible job of bringing civic education to our nation's classrooms, but they need help. It is us up to all of us as Americans to help educate future generations about rights and responsibilities as American citizens.

From a very early age I, like those students in Los Angeles, was taught that it is every American citizen's responsibility and gift to speak up, speak out, and take action. It is what led me, in many ways, to a 36-year career in public service, representing the people of Connecticut. While I had many inspiring people throughout my life who motivated me and helped solidify those beliefs, one person more than anyone else is most responsible for instilling in me a reverence for our rights and responsibilities as citizens, and ensuring that I had an abiding respect for the rule of law: my father, Thomas J. Dodd.

Like me, my father represented the people of Connecticut in Congress, first as a member of the House of Representatives, then as a senator. But his burning respect for the rule of law, for our Constitution, and for our responsibilities and rights as citizens began years before his career in elected office. As a young lawyer in the Justice Department, he helped create an office that would later evolve into the department's Civil Rights Division. And in the 1930s he and my mother were given a protective police escort out of Arkansas after he successfully prosecuted a group of individuals guilty of a lynching -- a result almost unheard of at that time.

But it was in 1945, when Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson asked my father, then 38, to join him in Nuremberg, Germany, as his executive trial counsel, that the full importance of our rights, responsibilities and the rule of law became seared into his consciousness. Those 15 months spent in Nuremberg, conducting what he called "an autopsy on history's most horrible catalogue of human crime," are what defined his public life and ultimately, through him, defined my own public life as well.

Sitting around our dinner table night after night, my father would share with his six children the lessons of Nuremberg. He taught us that the only antidote to the savagery and inhumanity of Nazi Germany was justice, and that even the most heinous of criminals, regardless of their crimes or how passionately we might wish to punish them, are entitled to justice. Time and time again, my father would remind us of Justice Jackson's opening remarks at the trials:

That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason.

These dinnertime conversations taught us about the importance of the rule of law and our responsibilities as citizens to speak up, speak out and take action, shaping the people we would later become.

My father's sharing of the experience at Nuremberg was one of the greatest gifts he gave to me and my siblings. It's the same gift that I now try every day to impart to my own daughters; the same gift that the Constitutional Rights Foundation gives every day to young people across the country: the gift of educating the generations who follow us about justice, rights, the rule of law, and how to make a difference. It is the gift that we must all continue striving to give to future generations of Americans.