Once upon a time I taught history, most often of the “American” or “United States” variety. To be honest I was always more interested in the cultural and social stories than I was in the politics and the military material, but of course I had to cover it. I even asked students to learn a few dates, because sequence (if not precise chronology) is important to understanding the past.
At some point round-about 25 or 30 years ago I was discovered that curriculum was something to be designed rather than a succession of chapters in The Book, which also tended to present a fairly narrow perspective on things. Along the way I began to realize that my students didn’t have much of an understanding of how government actually worked, especially once past The Book’s inevitable and simplistic “how a bill becomes a law” info-graphic. How a state government operates, or a local one, was an absolute mystery to my students, and so I began to include material and projects on this in my curricula. I even had my high school students look into local and state issues and write letters to officials or newspapers, and at some point—in the middle of the Clinton impeachment trial, I think—I even developed a “civic catechism” that I asked students to learn, supplemented by a criterion-referenced constitutionality “quiz” that focused on basic questions of rights and responsibilities as spelled out in the body of the U. S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
When I grew up in New York State, “Civics” was the name of the seventh-grade class in public school that I avoided by being sent to an independent school that year. (We did have to submit ourselves to an obligatory state history unit, which I actually enjoyed—far more, clearly, than our teacher enjoyed presenting it.) Civics was, as I understood, a mandatory class in public schools.
As I am writing this the elected president of the United States has announced that he intends to “end” birthright citizenship, clearly guaranteed in the Constitution. This is the most recent of many apparent assaults on the rights of citizens proposed or carried out by government at various levels in recent years, assaults that many believe have contributed to a weakening of both the structure of democratic government and the health of democratic ideals and civil society.
But there are many people who support these insults to liberties and the rule of law, and these people often invoke peculiar interpretations of the Constitution. Most of these readings would be regarded in normal times as “fringe” perspectives that are scarcely borne out by case law or mainstream legal thought, liberal or conservative. But the citizens who buy into these theories, which are often fueled by fear, bias, and economic uncertainty, believe them nonetheless; extremist media fuel their anxieties.
It is easy to say, as we have so often when confronting racism, anti-semitism and other religious prejudice, and homophobia, that such beliefs are rooted in ignorance. We shrug or curse under our breaths and wish that people weren’t so “ignorant.”
Well, folks, we are educators, and ending ignorance is our province. Of course, and foremost, we must teach the skills and dispositions of critical thinking and analysis that are the underpinnings of engaged citizenship. It is just as important to help our students develop inclusive, affirming, and optimistic perspectives on their fellow human beings. But I believe that it is equally important to instill in our students a strong and deep understanding of what our democratic society means and, especially, HOW ITS INSTITUTIONS OF GOVERNMENT WORK.
I ask, Where in your school’s curriculum do students learn how government actually works? Where do they encounter the Constitution in its civil and social context? Where do they learn how their state or local government works—what that “governor” or “state senator” or judge running for office actually does to make their communities work?
In our darkest moments many of us see the possible end of civil society on the horizon, and we need to enlist and empower our children in the struggle to keep democracy and civility not just alive but healthy and prevailing. We saw last winter how the Parkland students activated the nation, and we need to recognize and to help students recognize that “gun violence” is just one issue that requires the attention of our citizens and governments on all levels. We need to give them the discernment, the knowledge, and the tools that will make their advocacy effective not just at making headlines but in making—and sustaining—just, equitable, and Constitutional laws.
Your state may not “require” it, but our times require that we resurrect the quaint notion of “teaching civics” in the service of a human future.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)