Remember Civics? Here's Why We Need It

June 14, 2009 7:03 PM

I was very excited to be asked to contribute an essay to the AFL-CIO's Point of View Project on a topic related to the book. Here it is. Please let me know what you think! And check out the other essays - very interesting stuff. I especially enjoyed this piece on Francis Perkins:

Remember Civics? Here's Why We Need It
By Andrea Batista Schlesinger

I want to make an argument that may seem strange in the midst of so many debates--health care, stimulus, CEO compensation and so on---that are critical to American working people:

We all have to start caring a lot more about civics.

Civics? Yes. If we want to ensure that a pro-worker progressive movement is in our future, we need to raise a generation of young people who feel connected to the institutions of their democracy, who understand how to navigate them and who understand from an early age that it is their right--and their responsibility--to question them.

In 1906, the Committee of Five, appointed by the American Political Science Assocation to examine the extent to which schools were preparing high school students for citizenship, "linked poor preparation at the early levels to the plethora of bad politicians and weak public servants its members believed dominated turn-of-the century American government." According to Prof. Hindy Lauer Schachter, who authored a study on these early effects, the success of our participatory democracy was viewed as directly related to the preparation of its youngest citizens.

If you believe that this is true today, then you must also worry that our democracy is in sorry shape.

Since 1969, the federal government has tested young people on their civic knowledge -- that is, their understanding of the inner workings of government and their rights and responsibilities as citizens. These exams are part of a larger battery of tests in all subjects, called the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). Unlike the other exams, however, NAEP civics is tested only every four years. By comparison, math and reading are tested at least every two years, as required by No Child Left Behind.

According to the 2006 NAEP Report Card, only one in four American twelfth graders was found to be "proficient" (and this was not a high bar). Five percent of twelfth graders tested could explain three ways in which the president can be checked by the legislative or judicial branches. One in two could explain the outcome when state and national laws conflict. Twenty-eight percent of eighth graders could articulate the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence.

When presented with a photograph of the 1963 March on Washington with Martin Luther King, only one in four could explain "two specific ways in which marches and demonstrations such as the one illustrated can achieve political goals."

Lack of civil knowledge on the part of our young people, as evidenced by these scores, is a long-term threat. The decision to vote--and then the basis upon which people make their decisions in the voting booth--can be traced to our civic knowledge. According to Samuel Popkin and Michael Dimock, political scientists and authors of "Knowledge and Citizen Competence": "Nonvoting results from a lack of knowledge about what government is doing and where parties and candidates stand, not from a knowledgeable rejection of government or parties or a lack of trust in government."

But more than just knowing stuff, and more than just knowing how to vote and wanting to, it is important that young people have the experience of getting their hands dirty, talking about current events as they unfold and learning how government works through first-hand experience.

When civics was more important in the schools in the 20th century, for example, children brought home civics grades on their report cards. In fact, students took three civics classes, including Problems in Democracy, in which they talked about current affairs and challenges facing American government.

"We know that a substantial percentage of kids in the mid-20th century took that Problems in Democracy course," lamented Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Today, that course is gone, with nothing to replace it. "I really do think that [coursework] probably can't be found in the intricacies of today's curriculum," Levine told me. "It's not like they're doing that somewhere else."

And why not resuscitate this course? Because it doesn't fit in to the goals of No Child Left Behind? Well, reconcile that with the data showing that students who talk about current events with their families are more likely to be engaged citizens and that engaged citizens who participate in civic activities are better students.

Today, there are some efforts working to help young people learn how to navigate their local institutions. Like Project Citizen. In the words of its founder, Charles Quigley, Project Citizen "actively engages kids in going into their communities, interviewing people, doing survey research, identifying public policy problems, developing their own proposed solutions and political action plans, and trying to have an impact on City Hall." Unfortunately, the program reaches only about 500,000 students each year--1 percent of the nation's 2006 school-age population. (Though I suppose we should be satisfied that the program survived the Bush administration's efforts to decimate it--given how Bush officials can't have been too keen on preparing children to question and change their government.)

Maybe it's anachronistic, but I think we need to raise young people who care about their local institutions as much as they do the worlds they can access through Facebook, who have an understanding about how to pursue policy change right there in their local City Hall, who talk about current events and who know what a march on Washington can accomplish.

I care about civics because I care about a lasting progressive agenda in our country, one that is based on the right and ability of regular people to influence the direction of their government.

— Andrea Batista Schlesinger