How to keep kids from learning about civics
As schools cut back, what's happening outside the classroom also discourages young people from caring about the privileges and duties of citizenship
It’s not just schools’ fault that kids don’t know much about civics and U.S. history. (Photo by CDC on Unsplash)
During the second week of school, the new boy in the 4th-grade classroom still seemed a bit left out, so when it was time for the class election, a precocious girl named Jane asked the teacher if maybe everybody should vote for him. “You should vote for whoever you think would do the best job,” replied the teacher, who seemingly hoped the voting would give her students a lesson in how democracy works. Jane was a popular little girl, though, so the children embraced the idea she planted.
And that is how I became the 4th-grade class president, which had two effects: My parents bragged about me, and something ignited in my heart that inspired a lifelong interest in politics and civic affairs — leading me, years later, to work on campaigns and on Capitol Hill and then become a political journalist and a newspaper editor, jobs that I always considered public service.
But this isn’t about me. Consider, rather, what all my 8- and 9-year-old classmates and I learned that day about civics, which is the study of the rights and duties of citizens. We learned that elections have winners and losers — that is, outcomes that we accept even if they disappoint us. We learned that elections have consequences: I got to proudly lead my class into all-school assemblies in the gym. We learned that some voices are more influential than others, since, after all, I won because Jane was on my side.
Actually, this is about kids that age and a little older now, because if you wonder how civics lessons are going these days in American schools, the answer is this: Not well. At least, so it seems according to the results announced this week from what’s known as the “Nation’s Report Card” – which is formally called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. For a quarter-century, NAEP has measured what 8th-graders know about U.S. history and civics.1
Tests administered last spring to thousands of students showed history scores continuing a nearly decade-long decline, and civics results falling significantly for the first time. Just 22 percent of the students scored at the “proficient” level in civics; only 13 percent hit the mark in history. There was disappointment even if you’d rather set a lower bar, and judge results on the “basic” level: About one-third performed below that level in civics, and four in 10 were underwater in history.2
Those low-scoring students are now 9th-graders, meaning that in three years, they will be either heading to college or joining the job market, perhaps never to return to the classroom. All will be eligible to vote, the fundamental privilege and responsibility of civic life in a free society.
And that is why the test results have to trouble us. Citizens who don’t understand how our democracy works aren’t likely to participate. People who don’t grasp the lessons of history are vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues. If the next generation of voters is even less able than we are today to assess the issues at stake in our elections and the capacity of candidates to resolve them, how can we expect to make progress along America’s path to a fair and just society?
It’s not the kids’ fault, of course. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona noted that the latest test scores in part reflect the impact of school shutdowns and remote learning during the pandemic.3 But even before Covid, a lot of schools had shortchanged their students from learning about history and civics by curtailing their instruction: One-third of the 8th-graders have never taken a course focused on U.S. history, and only half have taken a civics course. Just seven states require a civics course in middle school.4
One thread of why this is so can be traced to 2006, when an international study showed that the U.S. ranked in the bottom third of advanced nations in students’ scientific knowledge and competency.5 Almost overnight, it seemed, the focus of schools, parents and the business community turned to STEM studies -- science, technology, engineering and math. Leaders of elementary and secondary schools embraced curriculum changes that might assure parents that their kids could have the skills necessary for contemporary life, at least equal to what was taught in other nations. STEM focus also appealed to college students – and the parents who mostly pay their tuition – because they were eager for assurance that they would graduate ready for good-paying jobs in a changing workforce, especially after the 2008 financial crisis.
As funding and attention shifted to STEM, other elements of a traditional U.S. education lagged. A push from arts educators – music, visual arts, theater and dance – convinced some schools that it’s a mistake to overlook that part of a young person’s development, so now you sometimes hear another letter in the acronym: STEAM. But history and civics still got left behind. Nobody is discussing MATCHES education, are they? (We’ll need to discuss reading and language education another day.)
But even if all the nation’s schools were to restore funding and scheduling for American history and civics education tomorrow, we would still be challenged to bring students up to the level of understanding of the topics that our society needs. That’s because the issues being taught have become a battleground in the nation’s culture wars.
State and local boards of education are pushing back against instruction that accurately portrays key elements of American history – notably, the role of slavery in advancing the nation’s wealth, and the impact of racism even a century and a half after the end of the Civil War. Nor is it easy to teach civics in an environment where one of the nation’s two major political parties persists in advancing the lie that the last presidential election was rigged. And how do you convince young people that the majority rules in a nation where sensible gun control favored by three-quarters of its citizens is nevertheless blocked in Congress?
Imagine how MAGA parents might react to a current events discussion that deals honestly with contemporary political discourse. How would a thoughtful civics teacher explain the attack on the Capitol of Jan. 6, 2021, without drawing rancor from supporters of Donald Trump, who says the attackers convicted of crimes are political prisoners? What would you say to students about the value of every person casting a ballot when one party is doing all it can to make it harder for young people and people of color to vote? Truth-telling can be perilous to a teacher’s job tenure.
Miguel Cardona, the education secretary, had more to say about that this week: “Banning history books and censoring educators from teaching these important subjects does our students a disservice and will move America in the wrong direction.”
But we can’t blame only the schools for the kids’ lack of knowledge, because bright kids always pick up a lot outside the classroom. And if they’re paying attention to what’s happening in their community and the nation, they’re probably unimpressed by anything political. They hear their parents’ anger at people who disagree with them. They see youngsters their own age slaughtered in schools and realize that nothing in the political system is protecting them.
So the bright kids who were the type drawn to public service a generation or two ago today seem less likely to make that choice. Once they’re old enough to grasp the news, they wonder: Who would voluntarily step into the ring for a lifetime of fighting with an opponent who doesn’t play by the same rules? Why interact with a political system that doesn’t deliver on its promises?
Hard jobs are often sustained by inspiration, but the power of patriotism to inspire Americans to public service is constrained today by the realization that our system of government is failing. The candidates for public office emerging from the generation now in school are thus likely to be only those who see political life as an opportunity for glory and ego enhancement, not public service. We have quite enough of those already, don’t we?
Both our schools and our fractured political culture are hobbling civic understanding. And while it’s potentially tragic for the nation, it’s also a bit heartbreaking to consider the youngsters who, like that 4th-grade class president so many decades ago, might be encouraged by what they learn to work in their own way for the betterment of their communities. We need to give those kids a chance for that inspiration.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Troy, N.Y. (Times Union, timesunion.com)
Casper, Wyo. (Casper Star-Tribune, trib.com)
Valdosta, Ala. (Montgomery Advertiser, montgomeryadvertiser.com)
Wausau, Wisconsin. (Wausau Daily Herald, wausaudailyherald.com)
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Church raffle offers a choice: AR-15 or flamethrower
A controversial church that has in the past raffled off modified AR-15 rifles has upped the firepower for its planned July revival meeting: This year the winner will get to take home either a flamethrower or an AR-15. Kenneth C. Crowe II reports in the Times Union that the church’s pastor, John Koletas, has used his pulpit to preach racial and ethnic hatred. The church, which calls itself “an ole fashion church, preachin’ the ole time religion,” is an independent Baptist congregation that claims to follow the King James Bible. We may refer him, then, to Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” (KJV)
Mayor greets abortion clinic with video of fire
When an abortion clinic that someone tried to burn down reopened in Casper recently, Mayor Bruce Knell posted beneath the news on Facebook the image of a fire. But after more than a week of staunchly defending his action, reports Mary Steurer in the Casper Star-Tribune, the mayor used a city council meeting to apologize — sort of. “I am strong in my convictions, I’m OK with what I said,” Knell said. “I just wish I would have said it a different way so that it wasn’t offensive to anybody.” The only clinic in Wyoming offering both surgical and medical abortions, the opening of Wellspring Health Access had to be pushed back 11 months after an arsonist last year broke in and set it on fire, causing about $290,000 in damages.
Feds say sewage treatment failure is racial discrimination
After an 18-month investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice has forced the Alabama Department of Public Health to agree to make improvements in sewage systems in Lowndes County, after the probe concluded that the sanitation practices amount to racial discrimination. Hadley Hutson reports in The Montgomery Advertiser that many areas where most residents are Black rely on a cheap but illegal method of sewage disposal called “straight piping,” in which PVC pipes and ditches direct sewage out of a home, leaving puddles of waste a short distance away. In exchange for the feds suspending the investigation, state and county officials have promised to establish a plan for a long-term solution within a year.
Teacher’s return to classroom outrages Asian residents
A band teacher whom an investigation concluded made comments that were “racial and sexist in nature” returned to work in Wausau schools after a 16-day suspension, prompting outrage in Wausau’s large Asian community, reports Natalie Gilbert in the Gannett papers of Wisconsin. The parents of a gay Wausau East High School senior who is of Hmong and Lao descent filed a complaint alleging harassment and discrimination, leading to an investigation by the school district’s Human Resources director. That probe concluded that the teacher’s conduct was "insensitive and unprofessional," but noted that some students said the teacher "uses humor to engage students and create a 'fun' environment." People of Hmong heritage make up 12 percent of Wausau’s population, the city’s mayor noted, adding, "Every student, staff member and teacher should feel safe at school, and be able to learn and grow in an environment free from discrimination."
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