President’s Day! And why you should care about Civics Education
Fun holiday bonus! Watch this video of actor now civics education advocate and Senior Advisor at the University of Oxford, Richard Dreyfus making his point on "Real Time with Bill Maher'.
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Blame it on reading too much Alan Moore in high school but to paraphrase one of his characters, I've always subscribed to the belief that in a functioning democracy, people should not be afraid of their government-- government should be afraid of its people. Ok, not afraid per say but "on notice" that government exists to serve the people and not the other way around. As a progressive it goes without saying that I also believe that government has a positive role to play in peoples lives (as opposed to Grover Norquist's followers who don't believe in government and therefore governments under their leadership tend to play a negative role in people's lives). However, progressive governance is only achievable when the government knows that the public is watching and that it is ultimately accountable to the people.
But it is neigh impossible to make the government serve the public when the public doesn't even know what the government does or what government can do. And beyond knowing facts like how long a congressional term is and various interpertations of the Equal Protection Clause, the public has to also know how to turn awareness into action. To make government use its powers for good, not evil the public has to know how to impact the government, becoming personally engaged in politics at the local and national level.
Civic education in America is not where it needs to be. As Andrea wrote in her column on civic education in the New York Daily News,
Today, formal civics has all but vanished from the high school curriculum in favor of passive courses in "government." In New York State today, for example, a one-course Participation in Government class constitutes our civics education requirement. And every teacher I've spoken to says the curriculum leaves out the "Participation" part.
The results of the government's abdication of its responsibility to prepare young people to participate in democracy are depressing:
* One-third think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.
Schools don't teach civics anymore, or enough history. That's why young people don't understand these concepts, not because they don't care about their country. If teachers are trapped teaching to the test and only focusing on the three R's your education is bound to be incomplete. As a society we must ask ourselves why don't we value empowering young people enough to make it part of their education. Because that is what civics education can be at its greatest- a way to empower young people to participate in the political process.
Here to the rescue are a new generation of awesome organizations often led by young people dedicated to increasing civic participation. Groups like The Oregon Bus Project, Black Youth Vote, Democracy Matters and The League of Young Voters have all found powerful ways to help young people (like themselves) become involved in the democratic process beyond just voting. A great resource to learn more about the state of civics education, why participatory civics education really matters and how to actually teach civics is the Center for Research on Civics Learning and Engagement.
It's hard to not speculate on just who benefits from an unaware, non-participating, passive populace. Sci-fi has done a better job of it than me. It is scary to be celebrating President's Day when so many people of all ages don't understand what the President's actual powers are supposed to be. Heck, this President doesn't even seem to be aware of what his actual Constitutional powers are either!
For the record, I don't like the idea of standardized test answers to civics questions - I'm sure my interpretation of the Voting Rights Act is different than say-- James Tobin's so it's important that the lessons offered aren't about memorization.
My Mom taught civics at public high schools in both the inner-city and suburbs of DC in the 70's. In reaction to the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement she and the other teachers in her generational cohort taught students how to get involved in the political process. They role-played elections, giving speeches on issues, held mock congressional debates and learned about political movements, consumers' rights, the works. I don't know how that fits in to the No Child Left Behind requirements but if we want to make sure that our democracy isn't left behind schools need to be authorized to teach that way again.