Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Civics, we don't need no stinking civics
College professor Denise Oliver Velez asks a very important question in this Daily Kos diary Whatever happened to civics? I encourage you to read it and then to read or at least sample the extensive, lively and thoughtful (for the most part) comments section that follows.
Velez reports that every year she gives her incoming freshman students at a New York public university a quiz about what they know about the political system and every year the results are always dismal.
This year, she says, none can name either of their two U.S. senators, only one could name his congressman, only one could name a single candidate running for the Republican nomination for president and none knew the names of any of their state government reps, though roughly half did name the governor of New York.
All could name the President, of course. I wonder how many could name the Vice President?
Their lack of specific information about the current cast of characters in our ongoing political drama isn’t so shocking. I don’t think many 18-year-olds of any generation have had much of that knowledge either, fresh as they were from an intense course of study on how to get into college, how to get or keep a girlfriend or boyfriend and how to be popular.
But according to Velez, her students lack “a basic understanding of how political systems work —especially ours —and … of the basics of legislation, politics, civil rights and social change and how they are affected by political and social systems.”
Secondary school education in civics, government, geography, social studies and American history seem to have diminished or disappeared at an alarming rate in recent years thanks in part to the pressures on schools to “teach to the test” as dictated by the Bush Administration’s implementation of No Child Left Behind (which seems to be leaving the vast majority of children behind) and by the explosive growth of social media, which seems to be replacing reading as a pleasurable and important pastime.
As Velez puts it: They don't read newspapers. They don't blog. They spend a lot of time texting each other because they all have cell phones. A majority have Facebook pages. Question is, what are they talking to each other about?
In the comments section of Velez’s diary, another teacher reports that many of his students seem to believe that the President of the United States is like the CEO of a company, that he merely has to issue an order and things get done – health care reform, jobs creation, taxation – and that his students have no concept of the duties or prerogatives of Congress.
Other commenters discuss the need for teaching critical thinking and problem solving, the need for children to see other parts of the country and the world, and the importance of parental involvement in making sure each generation understands how our political system works and how voting affects all our lives.
Taking your children to see Williamsburg, Gettysburg, the Alamo and other historic sites is important. For me, the shock of getting off a bus in Virginia as a white 14-year-old girl from Connecticut in 1959, seeing the words “Colored Women” over a restroom and suddenly realizing what that meant was an education all by itself.
Some of the commentators speculate that conservative Republicans and Tea Partiers actively seek to keep civics education out of the public schools because, after all, learning about evolution, the Great Depression and New Deal, the union movement, the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights struggle and other such milestones in our history can put some very un-Republican ideas in a young person’s head.
I can buy into that. Glenn Beck often railed against public education as being an agent for “Socialism.” What he chose to misunderstand is that public education has always been a force for “socialization,” for teaching about our common history and rights and responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.
In the last two years we have seen Republicans in state after state enact stringent voter ID laws to “prevent” virtually nonexistent fraud and to actually prevent college students from voting in the districts where their colleges are located.
Now, the Colorado Secretary of State says that those in military service serving overseas are “inactive voters” and cannot receive absentee ballots if they did not vote in the 2010 off-year election. So they can fight and die for their country but if they skipped one election, they cannot vote for their commander in chief.
He is, he says, just trying to prevent voter fraud, but really, if Republicans believed those college students and soldiers would vote their way, would they be waging this war on young voters?
Like King Canute, conservatives are trying to hold back the tide, but the young are going to be around for a long time and to the consternation of conservatives, they just don’t care about issues like banning abortion or Gay marriage. That tide will eventually come in anyway.
But there’s a great danger in failing to provide an adequate civic education and in seeking to disenfranchise young people. If you Saddle them with oppressive student loans, fail to provide jobs, force them into the military to use them for cannon fodder and take away their vote, they may take to the streets, sort of like they’re doing now with Occupy Wall Street.