1. Teaching Citizens

I am fascinated by government and the politics that grease its wheels.  I have been for as long as I really remember. My first memory of politics is sitting in a Hardee’s somewhere in the Dismal Swamp area with my parents and sisters.  Not sure if it was on the Virginia or the North Carolina side, but I remember we were on our way to the Outer Banks for vacation in the summer and had stopped for breakfast.  I don’t remember anything about what was happening other than that Bob Dole’s face was on the screen. As I ate my hashbrowns, his generic congressional mugshot stared at me alongside some captions I don’t recalls.

From that point there is a four year gap before I remember watching the 2000 election from the floor of our basement.  I was only nine but I was riveted watching the returns. The election would remain undecided long after my bedtime (actually about forty subsequent bedtimes).  After that, my fascination began to expand slightly beyond the immediate election coverage until I was basically absorbed year-round.

Looking back, the most unusual thing about my fascination with government and politics is that I mostly pressed pause during the school day.  This might seem natural; any foray into politics can leave a teacher exposed to allegations of bias. But it goes far beyond that. The truth is that I never spent much time in school talking about government.  There was little discussion of philosophy, of why our government is the way that it is.  I learned names and dates and titles of our founders but rarely did I read the founding documents over which they toiled (I read The Constitution from start to finish for the first time two years ago).  I learned about landmark Supreme Court decisions, but rarely did I read the opinions delivered by the justices who heard the cases.

To spend so little time digging into the nuts and bolts of government, casting a critical eye on our history, or arguing and writing about our conclusions seems odd in a country so enamored with its self-governance.  Schools could be the first place we look to solve problems and prepare children for the unquestionable honor of participating in their own government. But I’m not sure we do that.

Schools are uniquely positioned to nurture citizens.  Much of the dialogue around schooling in recent decades, however, has revolved around creating a globally competitive workforce; in some cases, it seems, at the expense of creating critical, thoughtful, and argumentative citizens.  Civics, writing, history and historiography, critical thinking, and the like rarely seem to factor into national discussion as much as science, technology, math, and engineering. My experience in public school was fairly reflective of that lack of balance.  Heavy on math and science classes with the history classes covering so much subject-matter as to prohibit study beyond a certain depth. English classes so packed with required reading that there was little time for writing and by and large a conspicuous absence of government or economics.

Young though I may be, it’s been quite some time since I was in a local public school.  Moreover my secondary education coincided perfectly with the Bush Administration’s rollout of its No Child Left Behind overhaul of education assessment so it’s only natural, with so much change, that there would be bugs to work out.  School has almost certainly changed a great deal since I graduated. Rather than speculating about the degree to which it has changed, however, I decided to seek out someone who might actually know.

Over weeks I contacted several teachers who spent decades teaching in schools public and private, working in both business and academia, in school administration, and educating other teachers.  I asked them, more or less, about civics. Each of them had incredibly broad ideas of what schools could do to prepare students for self-governing ranging from community service, to reading and criticizing founding documents, to splitting their time between the classroom and internships with local businesses.  One common thread was that they all had a lot to say. They had a lot to say about what schools are doing well, how students have changed, the role of teachers, and more. The other common thread is that they all agreed that – in spite of their broad range of ideas for how to do so – preparing students to participate in their own society and government is of critical importance, and schools could be doing that far better.