3. How Does One Teach Citizens?

Our understanding of “civics” is fairly consistent.  In practice, civics education most often involves teaching the structure and processes of our government, often with additional instruction in rudimentary economics.  This, however, is a fairly narrow understanding of the term. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “civics” as “the study of the rights and duties of citizenship.” This extremely broad conception of the term leads to endless questions about how we approach civics education in schools.

How tightly is the structure of our government tied to important figures and events in our history who spurred its evolution?  Can we understand how our government works without understanding the styles of governing from which it rose and other forms of government that have come about since?  Does teaching about democratic processes stop simply with quizzes on the electoral college or does it include encouraging students to form organizations, think critically, debate each other, and be active citizens?  How much civics should a school teach and how exactly does a student become a good citizen?

The most direct and explicit responsibility of a class and of teachers and of a school is to impart information to students.  To teach students how to do something or educate them about a particular topic. As such, every discussion of civics education starts with a discussion of what actual information students are being taught, what teachers should focus on, and how that compares to the reality.

After weighing their mission, the ideas of their faculty, and the needs of their students and their parents, private schools are able to determine their curricula as they see fit.  Public school curricula, however, are determined by a web of directives and standards passed down from local, federal, and particularly state governments.

Since 2001 public schools have been required to teach history, geography, economics, under the collective umbrella of Social Studies.  This typically involves the latter three topics being integrated into a much more expansive history curriculum from elementary school through eleventh grade with an additional U.S. Government course required of high school seniors.

In 2008 a new set of Social Studies standards amended those established earlier and reflected an increased emphasis on government and civics.  With the new standards, Virginia required all students to take a government and economics course in the final year of middle school. 2014 saw yet further emphasis on civics education in Virginia schools with the state legislature requiring all students to demonstrate the knowledge tested on the U.S. citizenship examinations.  

Former classroom teacher and recently retired Director of Secondary Instruction for Orange County Public Schools, Linda Carlton believes that the renewed emphasis on Government in state and federal standards was “based upon the perception that average citizens are not knowledgeable about the specifics of the way our government works.”  Carlton concedes this may be the case but proudly clarifies that Orange County was not required to add any new material when the newest standards went into effect, as their middle school teachers were covering the required material already.

Even with the increased focus on government and economics in Virginia, that emphasis is far from universal and its applications in the classroom still leave a great deal uncovered.  Though she believes some school systems are moving in the right direction, Carlton stresses that “it is incumbent upon the educational process to produce graduates who are informed and active, and knowledgeable of civics and economics.”  It is far from clear that schools do that.

“I think we’ve lost sight of its importance.”  Says Kevin Levin, a former History, Philosophy, and American Studies teacher at St. Anne’s-Bellefield School in Charlottesville who is now a full-time historian.  “As I get older and more grumpy, I see that more clearly.”

In his own History classrooms and with the flexibility afforded him by the private school setting, Levin was careful to teach his students about the function and evolution of government as they learned about the events and individuals that formed it and spurred its evolution.  Even with that focus, he feels that schools and teachers (himself included) do not give civics sufficient weight.

“I have to admit that even in my own teaching, certainly, we talked about the function of government at different stages,” he says; “but I can now more than ever see the importance of really introducing students and forcing them to deal with how government functions – or how it’s supposed to function at least.”

Regardless of how broadly we define “civic education” it’s clear that schools are in a position to give students the tools to make sense of their government and its consequence.  Though schools may realize the importance of their position, they also are likely not teaching students everything they need. Fortunately, though, this is often a matter of refocusing priorities and engaging differently with the subjects already being taught rather than creating new classes entirely.