Civics education in this country is dying, and if we fail to resuscitate it, our whole democracy may die with it. I know that may sound dramatic, but I have been teaching high school for 20+ years, and I am telling you civics education is gasping for breath.
Students often learn about civics in boring bureaucratic terms. Mention the roles of the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches to a room of high school students, and you will be lucky to catch the eye-roll before their heads dip down to the phones in their laps.
Plus talking about the duties and rights of citizens enters tricky territory. Though many mistake it for political proselytizing, it's essential to a humanities education. If done correctly it is also a great opportunity to tap into the passions of young students. We can show students that you can disagree with someone without suiting up in full battle gear.
Current civics instruction is failing students and threatening our democracy.
According to a recent article by the Brookings Institute, “70% of 12th graders say they have never written a letter to give an opinion or solve a problem, and 30% say they have never taken part in a debate.” Those numbers are even worse in schools predominantly serving students of color. In the last four presidential elections, voter turnout has struggled to crest above 55% of the voting-age population. According to the Pew Research Center, that puts us behind 25 other countries, including Belgium, Hungary, Slovakia, and Estonia.
A civics education focused on bureaucracy simply distances kids. If students learn Washington officials handle everything, they will believe our democracy is a formal thing to observe from a distance.
Instead, we need to engage them in the process of civics. This starts with their own lives and their own schools. We need to provide students with assignments that require them to submit opinion pieces to the school paper. Also, we need to hold debates in class. I even think we should let kids have an excused absence each year for civic activities, like protests. Offering a day off of school the way this Virginia school did is a way to really get kids fired up about civic engagement.
STEM education will not save us. Neither will the other highly tested subjects.
We have all sorts of pressing problems that will be solved by good STEM education. Alternative energy, vaccinations, and climate change are all examples of the sorts of issues science, technology, engineering, and math will help us tackle. Still, there are other pressing problems, like wealth inequality, health care, immigration, and civil rights, that will be solved largely by the academic fields of the humanities and civic engagement.
High-stakes tests and legislation, like No Child Left Behind, have forced many schools to move away from civics classes. According to the Cornell Policy Review, “Tested subjects—such as reading and math—were found diverting significant amounts of time away from civics instruction. Elementary and middle schools, in particular, were found curbing instructional time dedicated to civics courses in pursuit of achieving higher scores.”
If our democracy is to remain healthy, that trend needs to be reversed. Students who see the growing gap between rich and poor need to know how to lobby legislators. They need to know how to engage in community programs meant to help narrow the gap. Students who believe health care should be a right for everyone must understand the realities of the laws governing health care in this country and the beliefs of their elected officials. Those who don’t want to see families divided at the border need to understand the power of protest and op-eds. The same is true for the kids who think the government should not provide assistance to the poor, health care should be purchased, like any commodity, and our borders should be closed.
Teaching civics is not politics.
The role of educators is not to teach a political ideology. Too often, people mistake teaching civics as teaching politics. This increasingly drives educators away from civics education. That is bad for our country and every citizen on either side of the aisle.
It is difficult to tackle civics as a subject these days. An attempted lesson on civil discourse can devolve into all-out verbal warfare in seconds. One minute a teacher is discussing the importance of carefully considering the opposition's opinion, and the next they are throwing themselves atop the word-grenade a student has just tossed into the middle of the room.
Social media and mainstream media are both setting an example of combative vitriol. And these days, students are all too quick to follow suit. Many students turn to spitting out soundbites they have heard and rarely listen carefully to the opposition. That can’t be a cause to shy away from these discussions; it is the very reason we need to have them.
The importance of teaching civics education is right there in the definition.
Civics is the study of the rights and duties of citizenship. It is a close examination of the privileges and obligations of our citizens. Those are exciting ideas if presented correctly. They are the very foundation of our country’s founding as well as our most pressing social movements.
The country can’t keep moving forward if opposing sides keep moving further away. Students need to present speeches advocating for ideas with which they disagree. They must do exercises to acknowledge the best points made by people on the other side.
As Alexander Hamilton once wrote, “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records.” Students are fired up about the world around them. We just need to show them how to channel that passion into action. We must show them just how exciting civic life can be.