Monday, April 1st, 2013
Writing at the Huffington Post, Rachel Tardiff worries that the decline in civic education in public schools has had very real effects on how citizens engage (or don’t engage) their government and advocate for change. Using the recent debate on social networking sites over gay marriage as an example, Tardiff notes that her Facebook feed became “a stream of red, with a huge swath of [her] friends changing their profile pictures” to the red equal sign to show their support for same sex marriage. Unfortunately, she writes, not many of her friends knew what else they could do to show support for their cause: “We’ve grown up in the political reality . . . where civic education courses are a luxury and a sense of civic duty is quaint. When all you feel you can do to further your views is to share a photo on Facebook . . . then it’s a short but hard fall from engagement to impotence.”
According to a 2011 study from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 24 percent of high school seniors in America’s schools scored proficient or above in civics evaluations. That means the vast majority of America’s newest voters are unaware of the means and implications of political participation. And the numbers are dropping. Decisions about our economy and health care, our energy sources and environment, our access to social security and education, are being made ostensibly on our behalf but without sustainability, because we’re not being equipped with means to engage in the system. Instead — and even worse — we’re left with the belief that there isn’t anything we can do about it, except send a tweet and chalk it all up to how awful Congress is. In the classroom, we’re not learning more robust ways to express political views and engage, so we’re turning to social media to share. But without strategic leverage, our efforts get left behind once an election cycle elapses.
A few weeks ago — on Facebook, unsurprisingly — my high school civics teacher posted a message in a group of program alumni. He informed us all that our school, which had represented my home state of New Jersey in an intensive civics competition for the vast majority of the program’s existence, needed to raise $1200 per student to send this year’s slate of seniors to the Center for Civic Education’s We the People Competition. National and local funding for the program had been slashed so significantly that the students — who used to face no out of pocket expense — now had to shoulder nearly the entire cost of participation.
When I participated in the program, I took nearly all of my lunch periods in the library to read up on current events before class, woke up at 7:00 a.m. almost every Saturday morning to practice, and learned more about the ins and outs of the library at Rutgers University than most of the college’s freshmen. I met some of my best friends and started learning skills that I utilize every day in my work in Washington. My classmates and I immersed ourselves in the history and practices of political parties in the U.S. and abroad and explored the separation of powers. When we graduated, we went to prestigious universities and became engineers and pharmacists, government employees and teachers, social workers, accountants, communications consultants, and so much more.
But most importantly, in civics, I learned that if I was dissatisfied with what my government was doing — if I didn’t agree with a policy or a plan, if I felt like important issues were being ignored — I could do something about it. I didn’t just have to sit by, binging on cable news that preached inevitability, crisis, and the erosion of citizen agency. Civics taught me that I could make a difference in my life and the lives of my fellow Americans by being informed, being engaged, and being proactive. . . .
Civics education remains under the knife, and that’s the optimistic view. In too many cases, it’s already been thrown on the scrap heap of budget cuts and is quickly becoming a vestigial organ in our classrooms. If we are to maintain the system of government that has made America a shining beacon upon a hill for centuries, the system that we pride ourselves on and that policy makers claim they seek to uphold, then we need to enhance civic education in schools all over America.