Civics Education: Can Teachers Pass the Baton and Save Democracy?

One of the wonders of New York City is the New York Historical Society, a museum, a library and the host of dozens of presentations by the nation’s leading historians, researchers and thought leaders. I attend the sessions that suit my tastes. A few weeks ago I listened to Richard Haas, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and Yascha Mounk (author of “Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure“) discuss the State of Global Democratic Order – Democracy or Autocracy? Towards the end of the talk Hass bemoaned the lack of civics education in schools and I informed him of the required high school course, Participation in Government, he graciously replied he would check out the course

You can review the course outline, the Social Studies Framework, 9-12, beginning on pp 45 here.  The Frameworks also encourage teachers to “select flexibly from current events,” and, I was thinking, how would I present the course right now?

Content specifications are not included, so that the course can adapt to present local, national, and global circumstances, allowing teachers to select flexibly from current events to illuminate key ideas and conceptual understandings.

As you become more confident in your skills as a teacher you realize teaching is a two-way street; teaching is inextricably connected to learning: you can’t change the output without changing the input. Linking a lesson or a unit to an event in the news is what experience teaches us as teachers. Teachers must be nimble.

I would ask the class:

“Is violent crime rising and how would we know it?”

“If it is rising, why is it rising?” (List all the student theories)

“If crime is rising, how can we stem the rise?”  (Again, list the student theories)

I would include a range of queries,

“Where you get your news?  Newspapers, TV, the Internet, other people ….  Are newspapers and websites unbiased? What’s the difference between bias and unbiased?  What’s the difference between a primary and a secondary source? News and editorials?” 

And ask, “Let’s check out a primary source,”

What can we learn from Comstat data?   See citywide here and your own police precinct here.

Why do the experts theorize crime is rising? Read here and here . Do you agree with the experts?

A couple of days, or weeks of intense discussion, kids working in teams, finding unbiased research tools, public perceptions, the impact of public perceptions on elections: a rich panoply of lessons, the teams identify strategies to reduce crime, take a deep dive into the strategy, pros and cons, and explain your findings in an essay, with links to your sources.

“How about we send our findings to Mayor Adams and we invite him to attend our class and discuss our report with him?”

Civics can be dry and boring to a teenager.  Just before the pandemic I hosted a meeting of local principals and a leadership class from a nearby high school. The presenter was from the Census and explained how the census results can impact their lives.  One of the high students looked, to be polite, disengaged.

A cold call: I asked her why she didn’t seem to care, she replied, “Rich White people run everything, no one cares about us.”

Me: “You should run for office.”

Her: “I’m not rich”

In New York City the lowest rung on the election ladder is county committee; you only need 25 signatures to get on the ballot and you get to attend and vote to fill local vacancies on the ballot

Other students: “Yah, run, I’ll vote for you, you’re always criticizing everyone”

I send her teacher the paperwork, COVID began and schools closed the following week, the move to all-remote schools.

Many college campuses have New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) chapters; the college chapters actively lobby the City Council and State legislature, perhaps local high schools can join the NYPIRG campaigns.

Our role as teachers is to engage our students, give them a voice, and convince them that their voice matters. I call it “passing the baton,” each generation has an obligation to engage the next generation.   If we fail the democracy versus autocracy issue, the question will be decided without us, and, we may not like the results.

And, BTW, if your students are 18 years old before Election Day, make sure you register them to vote; NYS Voter Registration form here: all state offices are on the ballot this year.

One response to “Civics Education: Can Teachers Pass the Baton and Save Democracy?

  1. Eric Nadelstern

    Do as I say not what I do is a poor teaching model because students don’t listen; they watch.

    Despite the freedom students had in your class, our schools represent some of the most autocratic institutions in our society. In such environments, students have no agency. It’s impossible to teach students about democratic values without giving them the opportunity to experience the value of democracy in their lives. To do so would require a complete overhaul of how we conceptualize school learning and engage students and their teachers.

    When I taught high school students many years ago, I visited what was then referred to as a directed reading class. One of the students was staring out of the window and daydreaming. The teacher noticed and said, “Are you reading or are you thinking ? Because there’s no thinking in here.”

    Judging by the erosion of democracy in our country, generations of students have learned that lesson all too well.


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