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Teaching the 'Other Half' of Democracy's Story

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In response to signs in our society that citizen participation in our democracy continues to lag, particularly among young people, many in the education community have called for more attention to civic education in our schools. Yet civics as a course of instruction seems to invite more than its share of collective yawns inside and outside the classroom. What is needed is not more of the same old civics but a different type of civics--one that is rooted in the community, in solving problems, and in learning citizen skills.

Our schools do not teach chemistry without a laboratory, cooking without a kitchen, or computer programming without computers. Likewise, civics cannot be properly taught without using the community as a natural laboratory so that students can learn by doing, by connecting with problem--definition and response where they live.

Generations of U.S. students have viewed civics as a dull, abstract, and unmemorable subject. This is so in part because instruction materials have been shorn of the grist of civic history--the controversy, struggles over injustice between parties and interests having proper names, brand names, and heroic names.

Rarely do these books offer students a real stake in their society, with an opportunity to use their skill to overcome apathy, ignorance, greed, or abuses of power. Rarely do U.S.-history textbooks offer students materials about citizen struggles to make this country more democratic and free. From minorities of one to mass movements, Americans repeatedly have rescued their country from shame, error, cruelty, and decline. The neglect of textbooks in not deeply reflecting this democratic tradition has been costly to both the quality of our democracy and the quality of our educational institutions.

Furthermore, most civics textbooks continue to define "good citizenship'' in a rote fashion, as obeying the law, paying taxes, voting, and, when called upon, serving in the military and on jury duty. A 1989 People for the American Way survey found that young people today "have absorbed only half of democracy's story, perceiving the virtue of our system of government only in the rights and freedoms it provides, not in the accompanying responsibilities it bestows.'' When asked to describe a "good citizen,'' students responded that "the task of being a good citizen carries no additional meaning or special responsibility beyond simply being a 'good person.''' The basic civic duty to vote was mentioned by only 12 percent of the respondents as a component of citizenship.

Yet the People for the American Way survey also found an eagerness among young people to become connected to the world. Of the students surveyed, 51 percent favored making community service a requirement for high school graduation and 89 percent agreed that volunteer service work should be rewarded with school credit.

Students need environments that spawn maturity and creativity on their part by participating in building democracy throughout the community. There is too much commercial entertainment, MTV, videos, and other corporate upbringings absorbing their life and detaching them from adults and hands-on civic experience. As the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's 1987 report on student service concluded, "Teenagers in America grow up in the shadows of adult life,'' unconnected to the larger world.

Learning good citizenship needs to become a high priority in our schools, because it combines a requirement of proficiency in basic education with experience. It connects knowledge to its application fueled by the student motivation that proceeds from being taken seriously and given responsibility in association with adults from the community. Bridging the gap between classroom learning and community experience is a way of connecting students to purposeful learning that transcends the listlessness and restlessness on the one hand, and the excessive vocational or trade-school instrumentalism on the other hand.

This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

Numerous educators have tried to remedy the low priority placed on civic education. But until teachers are free to teach students how to question authority and challenge the status quo in their community when democracy is obstructed, little will change. We need to change the nature of civic education in the United States toward imbuing our young people with a proud sense of the history of citizen participation, and a sense of the possibility that they too can make the world a better place to live. Students must recognize that citizenship in the United States involves far more than freedoms and liberties. Rights are not enough. Our young people must have the skills and the experience to practice and even pioneer active citizenship. Indeed, there can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship.

It is in this spirit that the Center for Study of Responsive Law and Essential Information has produced Civics for Democracy: A Journey for Teachers and Students, written by Katherine Isaac (Essential Books, P.O. Box 19405, Washington, D.C. 20036; $17.50). The book contains four sections: 1) profiles of students in action, with case studies including high school students in Coral Springs, Fla., who successfully campaigned to save the largest stand of cypress trees in their county from development; 2) a history of five major citizen movements (civil rights, labor, women's rights, consumer, and environmental) which details how citizens throughout U.S. history have produced change; 3) techniques for democratic participation which include the tools citizens have used to strengthen our democracy (from citizen lobbying to initiative and referendum); 4) 10 projects that students can undertake in their schools (such as an energy-waste hunt) and communities (such as a voter-participation survey).

Civics for Democracy profiles the active lives of the citizen-activists Thurgood Marshall, Ella Baker, Malcolm X, Mother Jones, Jeannette Rankin, and Esther Peterson as well as the struggles and accomplishments of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the United Farmworkers, and Greenpeace. Also included in the text are 75 ideas for student activities and an extensive list of resources from citizen groups around the country.

Although many teachers have received Civics for Democracy with enthusiasm, they note that principals, school-boards, and vested interests in turning high schools into vocational schools for industry can provide powerful obstacles to teaching civics from the classroom-to-community projects.

Where different conditions prevail, where teachers and principals and school boards have shed their inhibitions to confront realities past and present, students are being given problems to analyze and solutions to ponder and advance in their own neighborhood, community, state, nation, or right inside their own schools. Examples of student participation include students in Salt Lake City, who successfully lobbied their legislators to clean up toxic waste, and students in Washington who saved their school thousands of dollars in electricity bills by monitoring energy waste.

It is time for schools to make civic training at least as high a priority as sports, music, or computer training. Most civics courses have presented general principles of rights and reponsibilities, such as the right to vote or the duty to serve on juries. But they fail to translate these principles into concrete educating for civic action.

Civic participation is a formula for human happiness--both private and public. It is more than a slogan to be intoned; it is a delight to be savored as an essential quality of life that makes democracy both a daily and an authentic reality. What a shame it is for us not to convey that capability to the next generation of Americans--and the awesome problems they will have to confront civically or suffer supinely. To meet this challenge, teachers, school administrators, curriculum specialists, and professors of education must reassess and fundamentally change the nature of civic education in the United States.

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