Saturday, October 13, 2012

Some Good News

The other day, I asked a young man if he knew how government works in New Hampshire. When he replied in the negative, I asked if he had ever been taught civics in High School He eyes glazed over and he shook his head. But he graduated a long time ago and that was then and this is now.
One definition of civics is that it is the study of citizenship and government with particular attention given to the role of citizens, as opposed to external factors, in the operation and oversight of government.
Probably everyone has a list of the top five things that should be included in a high school curriculum and mine includes civics. Back in the 1950s, everyone had to take it in the public school system, at least they did in Chicago and I kind of assumed it was still a mandatory course. The bad news is that it's not in Massachusetts and way too many other states but the good news is that it is here in New Hampshire--and it's a required subject.
Social studies is a regular part of school for most American students, but many survey results show that schools in many states could do more to help children learn how to participate more fully in democracy. Students who are fortunate enough to attend college probably don't know what civics is all about until and unless they take political science 101.
I wonder how many of our young people understand the makeup of state and local government in New Hampshire; how the governor, executive council, senate, house of representatives, and members of judicial system work with one another in something called the "process of politics" with the art compromise being a legitimate part of that process. My guess is that if you asked 10 people about this process, maybe 3 or 4 might know the answer.
When I hear about budget restraints or cuts being the reason civics are not part of curricula in other states, I can only ask who is teaching our kids about freedom, individual responsibility and accountability. Who is positioning them so that they can acquire the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are needed for effective democratic citizenship, civic knowledge and participation? These things are not passed down through some magical genetic code; they require that each generation of students learn them. And if they don't learn them, how are they passed on to their children?
The answer is clear as crystal. These kinds of subjects should be mandatory, more project-based programs should be implemented, and more educators and parents should emphasize civic responsibility. Our kids need to be exposed to this knowledge base before they are old enough to vote.
Now, I don't buy conspiracy theories that say this is all by design and that sheep make better citizens for those in power. That's crackpot stuff. But I do believe politicians have far too much leeway and leverage these days and in many instances are ignoring the Constitution, revoking habeas corpus, attacking our privacy, tapping our phones, tracking our whereabouts, passing restrictive laws on what we can eat or smoke, what we can wear when driving a vehicle, etc. Those with no grounding in the basics of civics simply don't understand how quickly and easily we'll lose many of the essential freedoms that we once took for granted. They need to get involved in the process, but if we don't teach them what the process is, they can in fact become sheep on a de facto basis.
There is some hopeful news. In some locales, young Americans are experimenting with new forms of civic engagement and are volunteering. Still, young people know less about formal government and politics than their predecessors did at the same age. There are any numbers of revealing studies on this subject; for example, "A Longitudinal Study about How Deliberating Controversial Issues in High School Courses Influences Civic Learning and Participation." Principal Investigator: Diana Hess, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Still,those responsible for curricula should not fall prey to budgetary, bureaucratic and/or administrative requirements that continue to handicap and produce students who think the current way is the only best way. Make civics a mandatory part of the curriculum.