“Flags” by Glenn Harper

Call for Submissions: Making the Case for Civics like it Matters

What if the symbolic gesture of adding a flag pin to your lapel represented everything we know about what civics is and why it matters? Nine states believe they’re bringing civics back by requiring high school students to pass the U.S. Citizenship Test before graduating. The proposition is that demonstrating the knowledge of 100 basic facts will prove that our young people understand “how our government works and who we are as a nation.”

The connection between these basic facts and the principles of the American system appears to be left to assumption and a lot of patriotic rhetoric. The cause is noble, of course, but does knowing there are 9 Justices on the Supreme Court prove an understanding of that institution’s role in maintaining limited government? One of those answers is more or less Google-able than the other.

Critics of the initiative say this quiz-based understanding of citizenship amounts to “teaching democracy like a game show.” The call to act in response to the very low levels of political knowledge found amongst a self-governing people reaches across party lines but there is nothing in these 100 facts to make a persuasive case for civic education.

Democracy thrives when citizens think critically and deeply about civic and political issues, when they consider the needs and priorities of others, and when they engage in informed action — not when they memorize a few facts. Let’s make high-quality civic learning a priority. Let’s not take the easy way out and pass laws in more than a dozen states that turn civic education into a game of Trivial Pursuit.
— Joseph Kahne, Professor of Education writing for Education Week (April 21, 2015)

If we’re going to bring civics back, we have to think beyond the easy answers that quickly make citizenship a display of compulsion and coercion. We need to connect our cause to what we imagine motivates a democratic people, whether they are preparing to graduate or working together to imagine what comes next for their communities.

Students naturally want to know why civics matters. This is not a new question for teachers who have to anticipate follow-up questions too. Students want answers beyond this year’s classroom. They are looking at the world around them and want to know how civic knowledge makes it work.

Adding a test to their graduation requirements offers a flat and uninspiring answer: civics matters because, “you aren’t going to graduate without it.”
This month’s writing prompt is looking for a better answer.

We have an idea about what a good answer might look like too. When the world’s most loved/hated astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson was asked to respond to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he showed how science represented the “seed bed of our nation’s future.” He drew connections between the work of scientists and our country’s economic growth, including mind-blowing advances in computing power and critical warnings from climatology. The reason it all matters? Tyson tells us it all adds up to “scientifically enlightened governance without which we may all vanish from the earth.”

Why Science Matters, watch the vvideo

Science matters because the world we know depends on it and we would all die without it. Math, science and technology curriculum continue to crowd out civics because we have failed to make the case that civic knowledge connects deeply to how we think and solve problems for our future well-being.

The 100 facts from the Joe Foss Institute divide easily into five categories (U.S. Constitution, Lawmaking, Elections, History and Geography) but the message they convey about civic knowledge is a limited one. For example, the quiz asks you to demonstrate that you know our Fourth of July celebrations trace roots to the original event in 1776. You have to choose 1776 rather than 1600, 1962 or 1998. You might also need to correctly identify that the Constitution was written in 1787, that the first ten amendments are the Bill of Rights and that the Statue of Liberty stands in New York City.

“What Would Jefferson Think” by Geoff Livingston

You might know all of the above but still miss the point of why the Fourth of July matters. As Jefferson saw it:

“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be … the signal of arousing men to burst the chains … and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form, which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. …For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

There’s a logic at work in the question of how our government works and who we are as a nation. When we share that logic, we can work together to forge a new way forward and skip the part where we wait for a standardized machine, or teacher, to check our answers.

How would you use the logic of how our government works and who we are as a nation to make the case for civics?

(Don’t let the animated video of Tyson’s words intimidate you. No animation required)

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