4. What Does a Future Citizen Need to Know?

More schools now have Civics or Government courses than have in past years.  These courses teach the machinery of government; the nuts and bolts, the branches, electoral processes, divisions of power.  But the way the government works is intimately tied to history and difficult to understand fully outside the context of its long development.

Teachers have enormous responsibility.  Whether in public or private schools they are bound by a slew of regulations, demands of parent groups and administrators, and the requirements of their various school cultures.  With teachers being subject to so many constraints and responsible for balancing such disparate interests already, there is very little time with which to integrate new concepts into instruction.  But History classrooms offer natural opportunities for discussing the evolution and purpose of different aspects of government and the importance of documents and philosophies that many other classes may not offer so readily.

Kevin Levin describes his major goal as one that is quite seamlessly tied to his vision of citizenship.  Levin states that “I’ve always thought of my role as a history teach to be to teach my students how to think historically or how to think like historians.”  At the center of this idea of ‘thinking historically’ is the idea of compassion and perspective and learning about the way that others see their world and think about their own history.  An important part of living with others and learning from others and appreciating the needs and perspectives of fellow citizens is the understanding that “history is not simply a narrative that is set in stone” but a patchwork of the recollections of the various people and groups involved.  

Linda Carlton, a History teacher in addition to an English and Government teacher, sees her role in a similar way.  “I also think that most Americans have limited knowledge of other countries and the history of the world,” she says, “and a viewpoint that is strictly Eurocentric.”  Carlton feels that “as America becomes more diverse and globally interdependent, it is imperative that we understand how the world functions” and our place in it, as well as the roles that others play.  She continues, “if we are to understand the beauty of democracy, we need to see the pros and cons of other governmental systems.” In her view this might center around other countries, democratic and otherwise, with which the United States has important points of similarity and difference.

Levin and Carlton both stressed the importance of interspersing this sort of instruction throughout history and government classes rather than isolating it in particular units.  History and government classes are riddled with opportunities for classes to expand upon more direct cause and effect, sequential outlines of events. According to Levin, such opportunities include events like the ratification of the Constitution.  Rather than an occasion simply for studying dates and names, in his class, “students spend a week just going through the constitution; trying to understand the different branches, at least the bill of rights” and the issues and problems that occupied the framers and lead them to their decisions.  Levin emphasizes the importance not only of tying the history to students’ understanding of how their government has evolved, but of tying both to current events and attempting to “relate some of those structural questions to whatever is happening in the news at that time.”

Schools in Virginia have begun incorporating standards that encourage this type of holistic teaching, but structural issues in public schools continue to make it challenging.  Carlton’s most recent years were spent as an administrator, intimately involved in developing the curricula used in Orange County’s public school systems. She states that recent standards of learning for history detail “four ‘strands’ that had to be incorporated into each grade level's curriculum:  history, geography, economics and government.” According to Carlton, revisions to state curricula over the course of the last fifteen years demonstrate increased focus, at least by the state of Virginia, incorporating Civics and Government into History classes. The nature of the multiple-choice state tests used to assess this knowledge, however, leave her with a great deal of doubt that classes are able to adequately focus on such topics.

History and government courses seem the natural place for students to learn about citizenship and how democracy works, but teaching about government and its evolution is only a part of what some teachers are willing to consider ‘civics.’  Perhaps even more important are the skills that participation in American democracy requires of its citizens. Those skills are far-ranging and can feature prominently in almost any other subject area.