Earlier this week, I was listening to a discussion around Richard Haass’ new book, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens.
The discussion centered around the dearth of knowledge among many in the United States on the basics of civics and history. The root of this lies seems to lie in our educational system.
Unlike most countries, the United States does not have a national educational system. Schools are controlled by local school boards with a greater or lesser role played by state education boards, depending on the state. This leads to a wide range of what students learn in school and the depth of that learning.
I went to public schools in western Massachusetts in the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Civics and history were an important part of our schooling. I remember in the later grades of grammar school reading the US Constitution and summaries of landmark Supreme Court cases. We were expected to apply what we had learned from history to current events, such as deciding for whom we would vote for president in a mock election. This being small-town New England, we would attend town meeting day with our families, showing democracy in action.
Having already learned the basics of US and world history in our younger years, in high school, our coursework was designed to delve more deeply into particular areas of social studies. One of the best courses I took was one on minorities in America. I learned about such important historical events as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. We studied the Black experience in the US, from enslavement and Jim Crow through the civil rights movement, which was, of course, ongoing. I learned for the first time about the discrimination that had affected my own Italian grandparents and Irish great-grandparents. By the time I turned 18 and could register to vote, I had a good understanding of the complexities of our past and of how to evaluate issues of the present and future.
My daughters went to school in New York, where the State Board of Regents is the main driver of curriculum. The Regents set the required courses and use statewide exams in high school to ensure that the students are fulfilling the goals of the curriculum. While the State is fond of survey courses, they do expect students to do much more than memorize historical facts. A major component of history exams is a document-based essay, where the student is given primary source material, such as political cartoons, government documents, and newspaper articles, and asked to use them to write an essay expressing support or opposition to a given proposition. It demonstrates the kind of decision-making that voters need to do to evaluate candidates or stances on current issues. High school students, usually in their final year, also take a semester course on participation in government, which is considered the capstone of their civics education. This New York State framework, which my daughters used in the 1990s-early 2000s, remains in place today.
Some other states and localities do a poor job of educating their students in history and civics. Some even boast about the limitations they place on what is taught in their schools. A current egregious example of this is the state of Florida, which passed a law last year severely limiting teaching about race and identity. This led Florida to reject a pilot of the new Advanced Placement African American Studies course because it includes materials about current topics such as intersectionality, the reparations movement, and Black feminist literary critique. They also objected to students reading works by such well-known Black scholars and writers as bell hooks, Angela Davis, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. Florida officials claimed the course was more indoctrination than education, failing to realize that one needs to learn deeply through the full spectrum of a field of study to be truly educated and able to make judgments. Perhaps, their own education was too limited for them to appreciate the complexities we all now face.
At this point, we have a lot of catching up to do, with adults needing more education in civics, as well as many younger students. Part of this effort must be to emphasize our responsibilities to each other as citizens, or, as Richard Haass calls them, our “obligations.” (I haven’t had the opportunity to read his book, which was just released this week, so the following thoughts are mine and not from his work.)
For example, the First Amendment states that the federal government cannot establish a religion or prevent anyone from practicing their religion. I have the right to practice a religion or not, as I choose. However, I have a responsibility to not impose my religious tenets on anyone else. The First Amendment also says that laws can’t be made to abridge freedom of speech, but I am responsible for what I say and should take care that it is truthful and appropriate.
There is some tendency in the US for people to be hyper-individualistic, crowing about their individual rights, viewpoints, possessions, etc. while ignoring that we all exist in community and relationships, with people who are similar to us and those who are different in some way. Part of the reason that education in civics is so important is to increase the realization that we are responsible to each other as members of the community and the nation.
We are responsible for finding out the facts on an issue, forming a reasoned opinion, and taking action. We need to be respectful of others and set a good example. We need to keep listening and keep learning, as new information and discoveries come to light every day.
We need to be civil.
Join us for Linda’s Just Jot It January! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2023/01/26/daily-prompt-jusjojan-the-26th-2023/