Civic education, good democracy and better elections

An excellent article notes the role of civic education in the United States current election, “Three-quarters of American adults are unable to name all three branches of American government. About a third can’t even come up with the name of a single branch. That means that more Americans are probably familiar with the “Y U NO”, “Futurama Fry”, and “The Most Interesting Man in the World” internet memes (the “three most popular memes of all time”) than they are with the who, what, when, why, and how of the laws that form the parameters of their life”.

The piece adds “Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post recently cited the first of the above numbers from Annenberg Public Policy Center’s latest annual national survey, released around September 17 for Constitution Day. Strauss’s article is just the latest entry in a tiny genre noting the decline of basic civic knowledge among American adults and children — and the real world consequences of such ignorance. Strauss does civic education a service in highlighting the issue, and contrasting it with the support and attention given STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) education by policymakers, education mavens, and the business community. But it’s not only that people don’t understand the history of the U.S. government and its functions, or that they can’t name them. By every standard cultural and policy marker, both formal and informal, they are being told that this type of learning and intellectual engagement is worthless — not deserving of resources or time or seriousness”.

The report notes “Last year, Julie Silverbrook — executive director of The Constitutional Sources Project — discovered that even as the civic education community has tried to form “robust coalitions and campaigns” to respond to the crisis, their already pitiful funding has dried to a virtual non-existence. Civic education is basically privately-funded. But the entire funding for the community between the years 2011-2013 was between $33 million and $41 million, according to data provided by the Foundation Center. Among the hundred shining stars in the STEM-education funding constellation, Intel Foundation alone gives approximately $45 million in annual grants to STEM program. The president’s 2015 fiscal year budget proposal included over $170 million to improve teaching and learning in STEM subjects. As goes the way of federal funding and priorities, so apparently goes private funding. And yet, in trying to draw attention to even just this part of the puzzle, Silverbrook could only interest The Washington Times in publishing an article about the subject”.

The author argues that “This is not to make a bugaboo about STEM education. But one consequence of having no funding weight to throw around is that school districts apparently see little benefit in investing in their civic education (social studies) teachers and programs. I manage AEI’s Program on American Citizenship. Our 2014 report on civic education professional development found that social studies teachers typically have to use vacation time to attend even half-day professional development programs. In addition, they often have to cover the cost of the program themselves because the school won’t, and the offering organization isn’t able to cover the operating cost of such a program. By contrast, teachers in other fields are even rewarded for attending their respective professional development programs — or at least, are not effectively punished for doing so. While this makes being a civic educator a laudable example of true civic behavior, there’s also a great deal of evidence that civic educators are uniquely in need of further development and instruction in their subject area”.

She writes that “Working with data collected from over 1,000 randomly selected high school social studies teachers, they found that while 83 percent of teachers believe that the United States is a “unique country that stands for something special in the world,” and that 82 percent think it’s important for students to “respect and appreciate their country but know its shortcomings,” a majority considers teaching key facts, dates, and major events related to citizenship their lowest priority. A mere 38 percent indicated that “the key principles of American government” was or ought to be a civic teacher’s top priority to impart to students. However shocking, that also should come as no surprise. As the seasoned observers of our teacher-training schools know only too well, for over half a century education theorists have decried any attempt to impart knowledge to students as a joyless and misguided exercise in rote learning. And, since it’s so easy for kids these days to find all the information they need on the Internet, why teach such boring stuff in school? Consequently, civics teachers might be the one teacher constituency in favour of some type of required testing”.

The writer ends “Seventy percent of civics teachers indicated that social studies classes are a low priority in schools because of pressure to show progress on statewide math and language arts tests. Ninety-three percent say “social studies should be part of every state’s set of standards and testing.”As Strauss rightly argues in her article, we are feeling the lack of a civic education in our present national discourse that this current election cycle has only exacerbated. Civics education and learning is indeed important. Fundamental even to the continued life and vibrancy of a representative democracy. But who has ever wanted to teach what evidently no one thinks is important to know?

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