May 03, 2006
Last month, the Washington Post's David Broder wrote a column
trumpeting the value of teaching civics to American students. He
interviewed Sandra Day O'Connor and former Colorado Governor Roy Romer
(now serving as Superintendent of Los Angeles's schools), both of whom
are spokespersons for the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (CMS).
A trip to CMS's website reveals many applause-worthy sentiments-indeed,
simply acknowledging the importance of civics education is commendable.
Yet both CMS and Broder's fawning column make the same mistake
that plagues many civic education initiatives. Instead of proposing
that students learn civics through rigorous study of historical events,
meaty biographies of important Americans, or lessons that integrate
American history and politics with philosophy and character education,
CMS offers a different model. One that puts the cart before the horse.
CMS offers "six promising approaches to civic learning"
of which "Guided discussion of current local, national, and
international issues and events" is one. What does this look like? The
organization envisions teachers discussing "issues students find
personally relevant ... in a way that encourages multiple points of
The problems with this proposal are legion. It says that issues
discussed be limited to those that "students find personally relevant."
One wonders how relevant most 14-year-olds would find many international
events, such as the recent country-wide protests in Nepal or Chinese
President Hu Jintao's U.S. visit. A major objective of civics
instruction should be to educate students and make international events and issues relevant in their lives. It doesn't work the other way around.
Equally disturbing is the belief that any discussion must promote
"multiple points of view." Conspicuously missing is any mention of
facts. It's unwise to encourage young students to put forth multiple
views before they secure a solid knowledge base. Civics education should
not strive to create classes of opinionated high schoolers; it should
first strive to create classes of educated high schoolers. There is a
Emotion and opinion are highly valued
by CMS. Its members seem to believe that to be a productive citizen of a
democratic society, students must constantly be active in "hands on"
political activities-working on campaigns, running for student
government (the Founders despised cafeteria food!), or protesting for or
against this, that, and the other.
The message here-one that will assuredly do more harm than good-is
that knowledge and learning comes second to frenetic activity.
To wit: picking up a sign and protesting immigration law or the war
in Iraq does not make one a good citizen. Protesting is easy these days
(especially when it's encouraged by authority figures).
What's difficult, what requires effort and commitment, is putting down
the sign, going alone to the library, and hitting the books to understand the history and nuances behind the debate.
Civics education should encourage the latter pursuit. And if our schools do that well, the former will evolve as it should.