“A primary object ..should be the education ofouryouth in the science of government In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important?And what duty more pressing…than…communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country. “—George Washington
Civic education is vital part of education for the citizens of a representative democracy such as ours. Since we — the people — are the driving force behind the government, it is critically important that every one of us have access to all the information we need to make informed decisions; every citizen needs to be civically empowered and engaged. Unless all Americans participate, our government is not a democracy that is truly representative of all the people of our country.
The lack of civic education in our nation is not just an abstract concept; it is indeed a very real problem that can be seen in our everyday lives. For example, a couple of weeks ago, I attended a meeting for our Riley County CWF (Citizenship Washington Focus) delegation. As one of our activities, we attempted to answer some of the questions on the U.S. Citizenship Test — the test immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens must take and pass. To my dismay, many of our delegates - all of whom are high school students couldn’t even answer some of the most basic questions, such as “what is the legislative branch of government?” or “what are the two houses of congress?”. Sadly, this situation is far too common in America today. Why is this happening? We already are citizens of the U.S - we should know everything on the test! And all the CWF delegates had signed up for this citizenship trip — they at least have some interest in government. What about all the other kids that weren’t there? How little do they know?
Currently, most school districts across the country lack an effective civic education system, especially in secondary schools. In the past, high schools regularly included three year-long high school courses - such as civics, democracy, and government — in their curriculum; however, this is seldom the case now days (Levinson, 53). Most high schools (including MHS) require only a one-semester government/civics course, which students take in their senior year— too little, to late (civiced.org). Although education programs in other subjects have been strongly improved though programs such as NCLB (No Child Left Behind), civic education has been neglected. Civic education is no less important than reading and math — and some would say that it is even more important. Many careers don’t require algebra or high-level reading skills, but every citizen can — and needs to — participate in our government. Unfortunately, though, there are no national standards for civic education — and, as the saying goes, “if it is not tested, it is not taught” (NCSS).
A common misconception is that civic/government education and social studies education are the same thing; this is not true. Unfortunately, most social studies classes (at least those I have experience with) consist of history taught without application to students’ present lives. So far, in high school, I have taken World History, European History, and American History. In middle school I took the required Kansas History and American History. Up until middle school, I didn’t know there was any difference between social studies and history! (In my experience, there really wasn’t.) Now, I am not saying that history is unimportant, as many things can be learned from studying the past. History, however, is nearly worthless without an appreciation of how it is relevant; and most of the history classes I have taken haven’t applied history to anything going on in the present; they were simply about memorizing facts that happened in the past. It is especially detrimental though, that history has taken the place of the critical government and civic education disciplines in the social science field.
Students cannot be expected to find their own ways to learn about or be involved in government. They need to be shown what they can do as a part of their education. If they don’t know they can participate, they usually won’t participate. Out of all 1,230 MHS students surveyed, less than 15% of them were politically engaged in any way whatsoever; less than half believed they had any influence government officials. These statistics need to change. We can’t afford to lose the next generation of potential participants in our government, especially at a time where important fiscal, energy, and environmental decisions are being made that will affect the quality of our entire adult lives.
An additional problem in civic education is that even the knowledge students do have about government is unbalanced. Many people, adults and children alike, are victims of “confirmation bias” — they only hear what their friends and family have to say about government and politics, and therefore they are not necessarily exposed to the factual information and the range of views and ideas needed to approach politics with an open mind. Parents often don’t want their children exposed to information from the “other side”, further complicating this problem. Unfortunately, confirmation bias helps to create the extreme polarization of political parties that can be seen today. Even government representatives in Washington constantly bicker like young children, unable to compromise on many issues. This dysfunctional approach to government definitely has strong negative consequences. Currently, a major topic in the~news is the metaphoric “fiscal cliff’ that our nation may “fall off’ at the end of this year. This situation could have easily been avoided with financial compromises, but these critical compromises have not been made, even when balanced approaches like the Simpson-Bowles plan have been created and presented. Sadly, this generation of politicians and voters can’t seem to remember that our country’s entire history is full of compromises. In fact, if compromises — even those we now consider repugnant, such as the Three-Fifths Compromise - weren’t made at the Constitutional Convention, our nation would not exist.
Students also know very little about state and city government and civic involvement; this is very sad, as local government creates more opportunities for students to participate in issues that are immediately relevant to their lives. Although the majority (57.15%) of students surveyed at MHS felt like they had a strong knowledge base in national government, only 32.96% had any basis at all in state government and only 29.62% had much knowledge of local government. This problem may be created in part by a view towards history and government that is too national; although national unity is critically important, students also need to know about their states and communities, and what issues impact them directly. A handful of classes, such as the required 7th grade Kansas history course, seem to make an attempt at addressing these issues. However, even though this class is supposed to cover the government of Kansas as well as its history, not enough attention is paid to that aspect of the course.
Current issues are also almost never taught in social studies classes. It is easier to teach history, as what has happened has happened, and the past cannot be changed (even though its interpretation may). Consequently, we students often see past events as irrelevant to our lives. Current events are hard to teach because they are constantly changing — but the effort is well worth it in terms of student engagement.
Students at MHS that are currently taking or have previously taken either a government class or a civics class are both more likely to vote and become politically involve in their communities (82.88% vs. 76.64% voting, 15.32% vs. 14.87% involved). Students in government and civics classes also were more likely to have a strong knowledge base in government on all levels, and to feel that their opinion counts and that they can influence government officials. However, some of these differences aren’t well defined, and although a 6% increase is good, in could be much better. If more government and civics classes were taught, involvement could be improved even more. Professional studies, such as those conducted by the national Center for Civic Education, have shown that an exceptional civic education program makes an enormous difference in involvement levels (civiced.org).
In conclusion, we desperately need more in-depth civic education in schools across America. We are losing touch with the revolutionary ideas our country was founded on — the idea that everyone can participate in the government. The problem now isn’t that people can’t participate; it’s that they either don’t know how to get involved or know why they should care — or both. As a nation, we can’t accept this. We need to civically empower students so that they truly have the opportunity to participate, and to know that their opinions truly do count.