Will Civics Education Help Students Make Better Decisions? [It’s complicated]

In my role as President of the Education Alumni Association at a local college I host a “Principal and Community Breakfast” every February. We invite a policy maker, a researcher, or a scholar to make a presentation to local principals and activists. This year we invited a speaker from the US Census; she made an excellent present – the Census and Schools.  In addition to the adults I invited the leadership class from a local high school. After the presentation I met with the kids and asked what they “learned.”  One student said if there was an undercount New York State could lose one or two members of the House of Representatives, another student was clearly “discomforted.”

Today electors representing the winning candidate in the fifty states and the District of Columbia will cast their ballots, on January 6th, before a joint session of Congress the ballots will be counted: Biden 306, Trump 232.

The presidential election seemed to mark a revival in American civic engagement. A record two-thirds of the electorate voted. …

Yet large numbers of Americans appear to believe President Donald Trump’s baseless charges of election fraud. Civic life and discourse have been eroded by the normalization of lying by elected leaders, the dissemination of disinformation via social media and the attempted weaponization of the courts to undermine confidence in voting.

Andrea Gabor, an acclaimed professor at Baruch College/CUNY suggests,

  ,Has there ever been a better time for a revival of civics education? Not your father’s bland civics, with its how-a-bill-becomes-law tedium, but a vigorous set of lessons about American society and government that encourages fact-based exchanges of views and civil debate about controversial topics without taking sides in contemporary disputes about such issues as abortion or immigration policy.

The question is: will a “vigorous set of lessons” impact teenagers?

On Friday the Supreme Court denied the last ditch effort to overturn the election results,

The court, in a brief unsigned order, said Texas lacked standing to pursue the case, saying it “has not demonstrated a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another state conducts its elections.”

In spite of the fruitless attempts to overturn the election, in spite of the total absence of evidence, 60% of Republicans believe the election was stolen from Trump.

Why did 75 million Americans vote for Trump and why fifty million of them continue to support him?

In recent publications, Berkeley scholars have suggested [in 2016] Trump won with an unconventional coalition of white working class and middle-class Americans who were motivated by resentment:

The culture and economy gave them no recognition and no respect for their work. Their industries were changing; their jobs were shifting overseas or lost to automation. They perceive that Black, Latinx and Asian people, and immigrants, are advancing at their expense.

Can civics education “teach” potential voters to delineate between “claims” and “facts?”

Many voters suffer from “rational ignorance,”

It was naughty of Winston Churchill to say, if he really did, that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Nevertheless, many voters’ paucity of information about politics and government, although arguably rational, raises awkward questions about concepts central to democratic theory, including consent, representation, public opinion, electoral mandates and officials’ accountability.

Many people acquire political knowledge for the reason people acquire sports knowledge — because it interests them, not because it will alter the outcome of any contest.

And with “confirmation bias,” many people use political information to reinforce their pre-existing views … the more political knowledge people have, the more apt they are to discuss politics with people who agree with, and reinforce, them.

The problem of ignorance is unlikely to be ameliorated by increasing voter knowledge because demand for information, not the supply of it, is the major constraint on political knowledge.

In other words, voters have always been ignorant of the issues.

Upgrading curriculum, as Gabor suggests, is fine, however, “teaching” teenagers and expecting the lessons to impact decisions is a stretch, unless, they feel the “lessons” are meaningful to their lives.

I was teaching an honors government class (in New York State every student take a civics course, “Participation in Government”). The principal asked to have the class construct a “constitution” for the school. We read constitutions, beginning with the Magna Carta, the British parliamentary system, a deep dive into our constitution, read every line, and the class decided our school was closer to a monarchy, a divine right monarchy, The principal the king, the assistant principal the royalty, the teachers the craftsman and the students the serfs.

One student said, the principal and assistant principals were management and teachers and students the workers – we should be “ruled” by a collective bargaining agreement. I divided the class in labor and management teams and the kids “negotiated” a contract, we presented it to the principal.

“Not what I expected, interesting, I don’t think the superintendent will agree to it.”  

A decade or so later I met one of the kids who was in the class; he immediately referred to the assignment: “We were all nervous when we met with the principal, after graduation I got a job with the phone company; I joined the union right away.” A decade later he remembered the experience.

Generation Citizen is an organization that provides facilitators to work with teachers in civics classrooms in middle and high schools.

Over the course of Generation Citizen’s’s in-class program, students choose an issue they care about, develop a focused, strategic plan to address the issue, take real action, and then reflect on their successes, challenges, and plans moving forward.

Generation Citizen is working in over 500 classrooms in New York City.

I asked the “discomfited” young lady, you know the look, what she had to say ….

“Old white guys make all the decisions, they don’t care about us, what difference does it make who gets elected?”

“Why don’t you run for office?”

She looked at me like I was crazy.

“Are you eighteen?”

“In a few weeks”

I explained to her how she could run for the County Committee in her Election District (ED), EDs are only a few square blocks, a few hundred voters.

I sent her teacher information about the role of the County Committee and how she could run. The other kids were excited, “Yah run,,,, we’ll help you …. You got a big mouth ….

What does the County Committee do?

  • Choose the Democratic Party’s nominee in special elections
  • Help create the Democratic Party pltform
  • Choose candidates to run for judges
 A month later COVID hit ….

Did I create another Shirley Chisholm, another Angela Davis? Either way, I hope so.

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