Reviving democracy in the classroom | Guest Columnists | heraldstandard.com – Uniontown Herald Standard
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Updated: October 9, 2021 @ 8:57 am
In an essay nine years ago, Eric Liu, a former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton, said that civics – as in high school history and social studies – was “unsexy.”
A real turn-off, man.
Kids aren’t learning a thing, Liu maintained. Or, they’re not learning what’s both practical and alluring about government.
More recently, the matter of civics education has taken on greater urgency. What Americans, and American schoolchildren, don’t know about their own government, both theoretical and practical, is appalling, and dangerous.
Two data points, based on recent polling and surveys, should suffice:
– A mere 25% of Americans can name the three branches of the federal government.
– 37% can’t name a single right protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.
In addition, there is the small matter of the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6. Was that any way for Americans to treat the citadel of representative government, the seat of a democracy nearly 250 years in the making?
(Imagine the schoolchildren touring Washington that day, witnesses to all the violence and chaos and nihilism, and thinking – So this is how democracy works. What an education in self-government that was!)
A year before the storming of the Capitol, two Harvard University professors got together with a professor from Arizona State University, hoping to find a way to reimagine civics and history instruction in the nation’s public schools.
Recently, the Boston liberals and the Tempe, Ariz., conservative and 300 of their closest friends (actually, a broad cross-section of collaborators) released a report, Educating for American Democracy (available at educatingforamericandemocracy.org).
The report, funded by the Trump administration’s Department of Education, lays out, not a national curriculum, but a “road map” that might be used by the 56 states and tribal and territorial governments to revive K-12 classroom instruction in history and civics.
The authors of the 33-page report note, “A lack of consensus about the substance of history and civics … has been a major obstacle to maintaining excellence in history and civics instruction in recent decades.
“Neglect has often seemed easier than engagement … to teach history and civics means inviting controversy.”
Civics and history are mine fields, all right. Pick your corner of the history ring. The 1619 Project side or MAGA’s American Heroes project side. As for current events-civics, forget it.
The report tries to thread the needle, with difficulty. It insists, for instance, that “civics and history (instruction) reflect the best scholarship.” This most likely means being alive to the current academic insistence on diversity and equity in public policy and systemic racism and and gender inequality in history.
At the same time, the report notes that the inability of adults “to disagree productively about the purposes and content of these disciplines (of history and civics) spotlights the need to teach civic engagement and civic friendship – two major purposes of EAD, as we conceive it.”
Translation: Fight but fight nice. Squabble but don’t lie or be self-delusional. A little self-discipline, please. Democracy demands it. The future of representative government requires it.
As the social commentator George Packer notes, the EAD approach to history and civics aims to give “American children the ability to think and argue and act together as citizens.” It’s a “noble, elusive goal” that is more than worth the time, trouble, and expenditure that it will take to achieve.
Agreed, but maybe a page from the Eric Liu book of reform would be useful, as well.
“I propose to revive civics by making it about … power and the ways it is won and wielded in a democracy,” Liu wrote.
Among other goals, students would be instructed on how to organize and mobilize for power.
Liu posited that students should be taught how to “read the power map” in their own communities, in their state capitals, and in Washington, D.C.
Imagine a curriculum that teaches students not only how to feel empowered personally, but to be fluent in the language of public power and “facile in its exercise.”
Now that’s sexy.
Richard Robbins lives in Uniontown. He can be reached at [email protected].
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