Why We Need Civics


This is the text of something I submitted to my district several years before I retired in 2010. Civics is no closer to being required in our district now than it was then.

Why We Need a Civics Requirement in District 99

In his 7th State of the Union letter, December 7, 1796, George Washington proposed the establishment of a national university. He didn’t see that happen, although his statement below as to one objective of that university is compelling in its urgency:

“A primary object…should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing on its legislature than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country.” –George Washington, 1787

But today, more and more universities are demanding less and less of college students in the area of Social Studies, let alone Civic understanding; thus we find that each year fewer and fewer college graduates possess knowledge of the increasingly-savvy machinations of those who hold and want to maintain power in our nation. They increasingly possess either overly-naïve or overly-cynical views about their government, but what they don’t possess is the democratic equivalent of Christianity’s “whole armor of God” with which to battle for their Republic. Washington would be mortified.

The Founding Fathers understood “the power of the ring” and made a point of separating those powers. In a “post-modern democracy”, politicians are much more sophisticated in their attempts to grasp that power. It is no longer sufficient to teach young Americans the surface areas, the Civics of Old: today’s Civics class must be much more sophisticated – as sophisticated as our politicians. In much the same way as the police must continue to upgrade their weapons as street gang weaponry becomes more deadly, so must we be upgrading our civic awareness. But is this happening? At the very moment that the crooks are entering the vault, we are laying off the guards.

In District 99, despite the faculty protestations otherwise, we hit only the surface areas of Civics, if that, in our required U.S. History, Constitution and other Social Studies courses, and our elective offering in this area hits less than 2% of our annual student population.

Why? Because that’s what everybody else around us is doing. There is not a single significant-sized high school district in the western suburbs that requires Civics any longer. (A possible reason: the de-emphasis of Social Studies on standardized tests.)

And off they go to college, where they don’t get anything remotely like Civics lessons.

Result? Millions of “educated” college graduates per year who know nothing about how their citizenship rights are being eroded by an oligarchy that has a much deeper understanding of both human psychology and the uses of media than the citizenry, and has become much more efficient in collecting power than at any previous time in our history. In fact, the very concept of Republic is in as much danger now as it was at the end of the RomanRepublic (which by the way is the message of movie, Gladiator).

The risk to our nation is greater than at any previous time in its history.

This would be acceptable…. IF We the People were choosing it of our own free will. In fact, we are not, and we as educators, particularly those of us in the Social Studies, should be fighting Washington’s good fight, not enabling those who would facilitate the end of the Republic.

W.E.B. DuBois spoke to the issue of what education should (and shouldn’t) be in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), “Atlanta must not lead the South to dream of material prosperity as the touchstone of all success; already the fatal might of this idea is beginning to spread; it is replacing the finer type of Southerner with vulgar money-getters; it is burying the sweeter beauties of Southern life beneath pretence and ostentation. For every social ill the panacea of Wealth has been urged, – wealth to raise the “cracker” Third Estate; wealth to employ the black serfs, and the prospect of wealth to keep them working; wealth as the end and aim pf politics, and as the legal tender for law and order; and, finally, instead of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, wealth as the ideal of the Public School.” (emphasis mine)

And what does “the fatal might of this idea” lead to? Barack Obama, April 2, 2008: “Our (national) problems always occur when people aren’t paying attention.”

But how CAN one pay attention when they don’t even know what they’re missing? Read this article and weep:

College students struggle on history test

September 17, 2007

By Tracey Wong Briggs, USA TODAY

“Students don’t know much about history, and colleges aren’t adding enough to their civic literacy, says a report out today. (emphasis mine)

The study from the non-profit Intercollegiate Studies Institute shows that less than half of college seniors knew that Yorktown was the battle that ended the American Revolution or that NATO was formed to resist Soviet expansion. Overall, freshmen averaged 50.4% on a wide-ranging civic literacy test; seniors averaged 54.2%, both failing scores if translated to grades. (I missed the last question on taxes and government spending: 97% overall.)

“One of the things our research demonstrates conclusively is that an increase in what we call civic knowledge almost invariably leads to a use of that knowledge in a beneficial way,” says Josiah Bunting, chairman of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board. “This is useful knowledge we are talking about.”

Failing Our Students, Failing America: Holding Colleges Accountable for Teaching America’s History and Institutions analyzes scores of a test given to 14,419 freshmen and seniors at 50 U.S. colleges last fall on American history, government, international relations and market economy. Freshman and senior scores at the schools, 25 selective and 25 randomly chosen, were compared to gauge civic learning.

The report generally echoes the results of a similar study done last fall by the ISI, which promotes civics in higher education. This year:

•Average scores for the 25 selective colleges — chosen for type, geographic location and U.S. News & World Report ranking — were much higher than the 25 randomly selected schools for both freshmen (56.6% vs. 43.7%) and seniors (59.4% vs. 48.4%), but the elite schools didn’t add as much civic knowledge between the freshman and senior years. At elite schools, the seniors averaged 2.8 points higher than the freshmen vs. 4.7 points for the randomly selected schools.

•Harvard seniors had the highest average at 69.6%, 5.97 points higher than its freshmen but still a D+. A Harvard senior posted the only perfect score.”

Get that? Harvard seniors with highest average at 70%?? ONE perfect score?? Really???

So why is Civics no longer taught in our high schools? Among other reasons, because Civics as it was taught to an earlier generation was a stagnant course, usually taught by ex-Marine jingoes who used it to boast of the perfection of the American system. By the 1980s, this kind of Civics class was being seen for what it was: an empty shell that was no longer (and never was) serving the commonweal.

But perhaps the biggest reason is that Social Studies simply doesn’t matter anymore because it does not appear on the standardized tests. Why, you ask? Because those who design those tests (the business community) see no need for any knowledge outside of reading, math and science. Sadly, our own government is encouraging this (which brings us back to understanding why they would).

The following is an incomplete list of Government/Civics concepts I have compiled that it benefits our young citizens to understand in order to be equipped to deal with those who are advantaged by our ignorance of them. It is by no means complete, and I don’t mean it to be a standard: I am simply hoping to demonstrate how difficult the job of citizenship is in the 21st century, and therefore demonstrate that at the very time we need to be “girding our loins” and singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, we are in fact, abandoning our soldiers in the field and leaving them defenseless.

With how many of these concepts are you familiar?

1. Redistricting/Gerrymandering – its use by both parties to guarantee ‘permanent’ power – its history (Elbridge Gerry) and its mastery by the Republicans of the Tom DeLay era

2. 2-party domination of our democracy – comparison/contrast with European-style democracies – the difficulty of gaining power as a 3rd party candidate at any political level

3. Control of Congressional Committees by the party in power – ramifications for democracy

4. Media literacy (a broad topic in its own right)

a. Spin (We use the phrase so glibly now we’ve lost sight of the real damage it does)

b. VNRs (Video News Releases), Slates, A-Roll, B-Roll, Branded journalism

c. Satellite media tour

d. “Floating” a story

5. Protection from credit card companies for college students – a solvent citizen is a better citizen

6. “Beer & Circus” –  Professor Murray Sperber’s concept of how big-time athletics and alcohol in tandem are undermining our system of higher education in dangerous ways to the nation

7. Recognition of “Political Speak” – the ‘non-denial denial’ and other ways to dupe the naïve

8. The Environment and Politics – global warming and the host of other environmental issues explained by the politics that drive them.

9. Political advertising literacy – how “My opponent voted against supporting our troops in Iraq” might be just as misleading as “My opponent voted to kill puppies”

10. Omnibus bills and the Line-Item veto -as above, how they put politicians in difficult positions

11. Pork/Earmarks

12. Lobbying

13. PACs/527s

14. Unitary Executive Theory and “Signing Statements” – misunderstood or unknown to virtually every American

15. The National Debt – ramifications for the future

16. Scandals

– awareness of them in our history (from Credit Mobilier to Teapot to the vicuna coat to Watergate to Iran-Contra to Monica to Abramoff to….

– dissecting which ones are personal tragedies as opposed to truly dangerous to the Republic

17. “Legislating” by the federal courts

18. Founding fathers protected against abuses of political power; how has the Constitution handled abuses of corporate power?

19. The Supreme Court ruling on Eminent Domain

20. The ramifications of the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act

21. The power of the Citizen to change history – a virtually neglected topic in our history texts which tend to concentrate on politicians, warriors, geniuses or other “great men”, and lead our future citizens to a subliminal assumption that history is something that is out of their hands and cannot be changed by ordinary citizens.

22. NGOs and dozens of other ways to help human beings.

23. The impact of privatization (neoconservatism) – the dismantling of publicly-owned structures (including our military)

24. The significant differences between philosophies that espouse power in the hands of   government, as opposed to power in the hands of the individual.

25. History of our political parties – can be of great value in understanding present party philosophy

26. The struggle for power between the three branches of gov’t. throughout our history

27. Use of Fear to control the populace

28. “Official” Propaganda (it wasn’t just a Hitler thing) (see George Creel)

29. What it means when a public official begins a statement with, “I don’t recall…”

30. U.S. involvement in and ramifications of the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO

31. Government’s role in the life of its citizens: Liberal v Conservative approaches. What is a Neo-conservative? Neo-liberal? Libertarian?

32. Ramifications of Executive Order 13233 – limiting access to presidential materials,      enacted Nov. 1, 2001, drafted by Alberto Gonzalez

33. Ramifications of National Security Presidential Directive 51 – May, 2007 – allows      the president the power to run the entire federal government (all three branches) in case of a national emergency… that is declared by the president.

34. The concept of privatization as interpreted by neo-conservatives (de-construction of    every publicly-run structure (including the military – see Blackwater and           Halliburton)

35. What the loss of the draft and the establishment of the all-volunteer military means(We the People won’t fight an immoral war or a war for empire… but a private army will)

36. warrantless wiretaps

37. Guantanamo

38. Patriot Acts I and II

39. Originalism (Scalia doctrine that the SC cannot interpret the Constitution in any other way than the Founding Fathers intended)

40. Citizens United

41. Black Sites

42. “Enhanced interrogation”

43. Push polling

44. Stop-loss

45. The evolution of the filibuster (filibuster reform)

This list could certainly be longer (please feel free to make suggestions), but it’s hopefully long enough to demonstrate how badly our children need to be armed against what is being thrown at them.


About robertwallacegraham

Retired high school teacher, curmudgeon, soccer coach, bicyclist, etc. etc.
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