from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Civics - should we teach it? What should we teach? 

In yesterday’s Washington Post, one could read an op-ed jointly written by Sandra Day O’Connor and Roy Romer (now, that’s an interesting duo) entitled Not by Math Alone. Let me offer the beginning:

Fierce global competition prompted President Bush to use the State of the Union address to call for better math and science education, where there's evidence that many schools are falling short.

We should be equally troubled by another shortcoming in American schools: Most young people today simply do not have an adequate understanding of how our government and political system work, and they are thus not well prepared to participate as citizens.

This country has long exemplified democratic practice to the rest of the world. With the attention we are paying to advancing democracy abroad, we ought not neglect it at home.

I was provoked by this op-ed to write the entry you are now reading. Do not presume that you predict what you will encounter should you continue reading.

The two notables unfortunately base their argument on the low percentage of students who score proficient (about 1/3) on a national civics assessment in 1998, and that less than 10% could list two ways a democracy benefits from citizen participation, even as they acknowledge that our current generation of students is patriotic and willing to do volunteer service.

The authors argue
A healthy democracy depends on the participation of citizens, and that participation is learned behavior; it doesn't just happen. As the 2003 report "The Civic Mission of Schools" noted: "Individuals do not automatically become free and responsible citizens, but must be educated for citizenship." That means civic learning -- educating students for democracy -- needs to be on par with other academic subjects.

This is not a new idea. Our first public schools saw education for citizenship as a core part of their mission. Eighty years ago, John Dewey said, "Democracy needs to be reborn in every generation and education is its midwife."
. They go on to write that civics learning has been pushed aside, arguing ahistorically that until the 1960’s THREE courses in civics and government, including “civics” and “the problems of democracy” were COMMON in American public high schools.

When I first read this, I stopped in amazement at what I have just described. I graduated from high school in 1963, my sister in 1963. At the high school level we had NO course in civics or government - we did that in 8th grade. The sequence of social courses had, in ten years before my graduation, had only one change - the edition of an elective in AP American History that one could take after having completed the regular American History course. I would be curious if readers of my age or more senior vintage have memories that accord with mine.

The authors argued that such courses encouraged students to explore the roles of citizens and to discuss current issues, and that current courses in government do not significantly address the issue of citizen participation. I know they are mistaken with respect to what happens in the government course in our school, and not just in my classroom. The content on which our students will be tested by the state of Maryland definitely includes issues of citizen participation. And programs such as “We the People Project Citizen” which go through the 9th grade require students of a participating to actively participate in a civic issue.

Let me offer another selection from the piece:
We need more and better classes to impart the knowledge of government, history, law and current events that students need to understand and participate in a democratic republic. And we also know that much effective civic learning takes place beyond the classroom -- in extracurricular activity, service work that is connected to class work, and other ways students experience civic life.

Preserving our democracy should be reason enough to promote civic learning. But there are other benefits. Understanding society and how we relate to each other fosters the attitudes essential for success in college, work and communities; it enhances student learning in other subjects.

The authors are arguing that the health of this country requires that our students understand our system, that even our economic health depends on it. They have already noted that research shows people with a better understanding of history and our system of government are not only more likely to participate civicly, they are also more likely to vote.

The authors are national cochairs of the advisory council for the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, which describes itself as
A Long-Term Effort to Renew and Elevate Civic Learning in Our Nation’s Schools
. One can find on their website the following statement:
The Campaign for the Civic Mission Schools was created to increase the quality and quantity of civic learning in our schools, grades K-12. The Campaign works to bring about changes in state, local, and national policy that promote civic learning and implement the recommendations in the Civic Mission of Schools report.

And now it is time for me to offer some thoughts which may not be what you expect. Let me acknowledge some agreement with the two notables. Education for citizenship is clearly as important as for science, math or reading. Historically one reason for the expansion of American public schooling after the period of massive immigration near the end of the 19th century was to better educate the newly arrived as Americans. How we went about it then was fraught with problems, and those problems are in some sense still with us. But there are issues which we first must acknowledge.

O’Connor and Romer base their argument at least in part on the results of a national assessment. These bespeaks a mindset with which I do not agree. Here I will note that NCLB has current requirements for testing in reading and math and forthcoming testing in science, in grades 3-8, and a onetime test in high school of reading and math. There is extensive anecdotal evidence of schools whose scores are low dropping instruction in social studies to have more time for test prep. Some have argued for including testing in social studies and even in Art and Music to ensure that these subjects maintain a place in the elementary curriculum. Clearly if we do not begin to address the basics of the history of our society before high school students will be ill prepared to undertake serious study of government, whether one calls it civics or government or uses some other focus-group tested term.

But I would hesitate to rely on any national assessment as an indicator that our students know and understand less than the previous generations. As noted I graduated from high school in 1963. And yet I have clear memories of reading in the 1950’s - and in each subsequent decade as well - the result of man on the street interviews on occasions like the 4th of July where most people did not recognize key ideas from the Declaration of Independence. We have always had a significant number of the residents of this country, citizens or not, who did not accept the tenets of our democratic republic with guaranteed rights. We see their progeny today - they think the United States is a Christian nation, they are willing to suspend the protections of the Bill of Rights for groups and person they don’t like, arguing that terrorists or foreigners or non-Christians or those accused of crimes really don’t need such protections. It is frightening to see how many of them hold positions of responsibility bin our governments, and even more frightening to see how many are shaping the understanding (or lack thereof) of future generations in their religious organizations and their schools.

And it is this last point which we cannot ignore. An increasing albeit still small percentage of our young people are receiving their education in non-public school settings. The idea of affecting educational policy to develop a more meaningful understanding of our system, assuming it is possible, cannot reach into these schools and homes, which will jealously protect their independence from government interference and oversight (and why do so many of these people not want oversight of any kind, whether it be of their schools, their businesses, their churches, or when they achieve power the governments they abuse by their leadership? Ah, but I digress, or do I?).

Equally dangerous is that in some of these cases they do teach about the government, but what they teach is so alien to the spirit of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that it might be far better were they to have no such instruction. And here I note that the problem is not restricted to non-;public settings. After all, we have seen concerted efforts by some on the Christian right to take over school boards at local and state levels. We usually become aware of this only in battles over Intelligent Design and Creationism, but the same issues apply in how we are allowed to teach about government and economics. This has been an ongoing problem -- if you do not know who Mel and Norma Gabler were, then you do not realize how serious and long-standing are some of the problems.

It is not realistic to assume that one can require more than one course in government in the modern American public high school. Remember, colleges want 4 years of English, the better schools want at least 3 years of a foreign language, math at least through pre-calculus (and those interested in science, math and engineering probably need at least one calculus course), and probably all 3 hard sciences. For social studies one would hope at a minimum US History, World History of some sort would also be required. We can argue that colleges are pushing too much down on high schools, but as a high school teacher I have to acknowledge that far too many of our students do leave high school without being prepared to work at a college level. That for me would be another argument against adding additional course requirements. We need to have time to work on critical reading, on writing, on research, on media literacy, on how to present and dissect political arguments and advertising. All of these are issues of civic competence for which there is already decreasing time in the school day and school year.

I have a further concern, which is reflected in my title. I worry how we will determine the content the students would be required to know in such courses. I have had one principal (in a middle school) try to tell me that I could not inform other teachers that they couldn’t make students even stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, although she backed off when i told her that if she insisted my next action would be to call the ACLU. Would the powers that be prohibit be from teaching Supreme Court cases such as Barnette that explain the rights of students? Whose interpretation of the Bill of Rights will prevail, and would we be prohibited from discussing contrary points of view? How would that prepare our young people to be citizens, or is the concept of citizen supposed to be one who salutes the flag and does what her leaders tell her to do? Certainly we have seen intimations of such an attitude in the current administration, and in how political opponents of that administration have been attacked.

My primary course is government. I teach it because I believe it is the best course with which to connect my students to the content, because they are all affected by the government, and at some point the vast majority (not all are or will become citizens) will have the opportunity to participate in the shaping of that government through voting, and perhaps even by running for office. In my class they are required to wrestle with different points of view, to learn how to support an argument with facts (and it is not merely by listing a lot of facts, as many have discovered to their chagrin when I show them how every fact they cite can be used to counter the argument they are making unless they make clear HOW they are using the fact). They learn to distinguish between fact and opinion, and how to evaluate the propaganda techniques which are so common in our political discourse. Hopefully they learn a great deal about the history and structure and interpretation of our governmental systems, and also how to maintain comity in civic discourse, how to disagree without being disagreeable.

But I would argue that this is insufficient. I would argue that if O’Connor and Romer truly want our students to learn to become citizens, there is something other than courses which is is required. We need to totally restructure how we do our schooling. There are few places in America less democratic than the American Public School. Students have mandates imposed on them, large and petty, about what they can wear, about how they can speak. We do not teach civic responsibility when an 18 year old senior has to have permission and a pass to use a lavatory. Are many students still so immature that we have grave reservations about giving them liberty? If so, when are they going to develop a sense of responsibility? Will it, and civic competence, magically arise at the moment we hand them their high school diplomas? If you agree that such is unlikely, then how do we reshape our schools -- and our society -- so that our young people can learn what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, a role with responsibilities as well as rights and liberties?

I would argue that our students actually have far more knowledge and understanding about our government and society than we adults credit them. In school we often talk about hidden or unstated curricula. Hidden is when we are not explicit about our purposes. Running schools on a basis requiring the students to be compliant is a clear hidden curriculum with respect to learning about civics. And our students know it. And our students often learn that the traditional civics course of the type about which O’Connor and Romer seem to be nostalgic would be ineffective because our students can look at television or read on the internet about a reality which contradicts those nice neat lessons. I would argue that the most important things we could do in helping our students understand our system of government and want to participate would be for adults to live by the principles - which I think should include comity in our civil discourse - and to act as if the Constitution and the Bill of Rights truly mattered. If all that matters is winning, at any cost, then our students will quickly learn that lesson. It will be reflected in the cheating on exams, high stakes and otherwise, because that is no different than cheating on taxes or in fulfilling a contract or in issuing a financial statement. it will be reflected in brutality to those who stand in the way of their goals, as some of our business and governmental leaders model far too often. We will certainly see it in violating the rules for elections for class office and student government, and most of all, in our athletic competitions.

If our society and our government are to live in the neighborhood of our highest aspirations, we cannot get there through civic courses. Teaching formally about our government is insufficient, albeit a necessary step on that journey. Modeling that to which we aspire for our young people is far more effective.

I am interested in the responses of others to what I acknowledge is something of a screed. I feel passionately on this issue, and I worry about the future of this nation, as those who regularly read my posting will already know. But I also accept that mine is not the only possible vision, and that if we are to save this nation -- for it is at risk, but not because of the scores on mass-produced tests, but because the very idea of Constitutional democracy is now under attack -- then the way we approach the civic education of our young people is a critical issue, but one that cannot be addressed merely by what we do in schools. And so I have written this piece.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
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