Ideals or reality: What should civics teach?

I learned last week — from this funny but scathing commentary in our local City Pages — that Minnesota may soon require high school students to pass a “citizenship test” in order to get a diploma.

According to the article, students would take a test similar to the naturalization test, which 97 percent of immigrants pass. About one-third of natural born citizens can’t pass it, although it’s pretty simplistic, focusing on questions like “Who makes federal laws?” and “Name one state that borders Canada.”

Mike Mullen, who wrote the City Pages piece, posited that if we’re going to push for civic knowledge, we should make it more realistic.

He suggested questions like:

“True or False: A group of Senate Democrats have continued to block Sunday liquor sales in Minnesota.”

“True or False: There are eight justices on the Supreme Court, and we should just get used to it.”

Also, as a free-response question: “There are a combined 201 legislators in the Minnesota Legislature. Name the five that actually make all the decisions.”

Mullen’s piece is entertaining, but he points out a real problem facing civics teachers today. How do we inspire students about civic ideals and civic behavior when the political reality seems to belie what we say?

I can teach high school students to debate issues in a respectful manner, requiring evidence and patience and thoughtful discourse. But when they go home and see popular presidential candidates making ad hominem attacks, stating falsehoods and planting rumors about each other, my way seems like a little boring and out of date.

Then there are the factual issues. Is the textbook explanation of how a bill becomes a law even true anymore, when party political maneuvers so frequently prevent matters from ever getting a full hearing? And what about the independence of the Court?

The real question is: What is the role of a civics or government teacher — to teach an idealized system or the system we actually have?

As a government teacher, I always considered it my role to give students a “user’s guide.” My philosophy was: It’s your government; it will be in your hands; so you’d better learn how to work it. I de-emphasized learning all the minutiae (the stuff on the citizenship test) and instead dedicated time to debating current issues and requiring students to work on a community issue that mattered to them.

If we implement a statewide “citizenship test,” my fear is that those kinds of activities will be pushed out in favor of rote memorization of facts.

Sure, it’s kind of important that students know who Eisenhower was and what departments are part of the Cabinet, but I’d rather my civics students know how far their protected speech goes and how to start a petition if they oppose a new sports stadium.

Here are the lessons our civics classes ought to teach:

  • What the constitution says and what it means, according to the Court. The Constitution may not be perfect, but it is the supreme law, and it determines whether your Facebook post is free speech or grounds for losing your job.
  • How to question the information you are fed. Students get misinformation from 100 different voices, primarily social media, every day. If we don’t motivate them to ask for sources and verify information, they’ll be susceptible to everything people tell them.
  • How to get involved. Citizenship really isn’t a spectator sport. If something bothers you, you need the tools to work for change.

My issue with this citizenship test idea isn’t that it’s too lofty or naive, but that it misses the point.

We don’t need one more test that focuses on picky details — we need our students to learn a deep understanding of the American democratic experiment and the role they are going to play. It’s not easy to capture that on any multiple-choice test.

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