By Linda Stamato
“We have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside. In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is even more vital.” — John G. Roberts, Chief Justice, United States Supreme Court
New Jersey is on a path to mandate civic education, with pending legislation that directs all boards of education to provide study in civics in the state’s middle schools.
This initiative comes as part of a push, nationally, by politicians, teachers, parents, and, recently, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), to have students grasp a deeper understanding of their nation’s history.
The hope is they will learn civic essentials so they understand and appreciate the values and principles underlying the American system of constitutional democracy–and are prepared to actively engage as citizens in their local communities, state, and nation.
State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-21st Dist.), the prime sponsor, says the plan is to give students “the skills and knowledge they need to actively participate in a democratic society.”
Likely to substantially aid this work is Educating for American Democracy.
Funded by the NEH, this is a consortium of 300 scholars–from Princeton to Liberty University–who reached a consensus on guiding principles and produced a roadmap for teaching American history and constitutional democracy for teachers from kindergarten to senior year of high school.
Their work was made public on PBS in late February and presented in a national forum the following day. The scholars would like teaching of these subjects to be mandated by states, and these guidelines and resources developed for teachers and school boards could provide a major assist for the massive undertaking.
Civics Beyond the Middle: High Schools, Colleges and Universities
There is ample evidence of a gaping hole in civic knowledge among the nation’s adults. Just 51 percent of those surveyed were able to identify the three branches of government, for example, and only one in three were able to pass the U.S. citizenship exam.
That’s hardly surprising. In New Jersey, for example, only 39 percent of schools voluntarily offer a civics course to all students.
With such limited exposure, how can students understand the nature and functioning of the nation’s justice system, for example? How can they understand legislative districting and the issue of gerrymandering?
Without discussing what makes democracy work, how can individuals participate in the processes of electing, debating, governing and problem-solving?
Indeed, as a nation founded on the values of constitutional democracy, don’t students need to examine how they have been manifested throughout American history, and what barriers were encountered in enunciating and acting on those values?
Ammu Anil, a recent high school graduate, made a persuasive case in her plea for civics education in a recent column in the Star-Ledger.
Curricula and the State
Historians will say that history is always in the process of revision as new information is uncovered and perspectives shift. So we need to avoid a single, static view of history to frame contemporary understanding. And, yes, we need to acknowledge the flaws in our practice of democracy in our teaching of it.
The state can encourage civic education, even mandate it. But in a democracy, it must not dictate a certain view, nor seek to limit the legitimate ways citizens express their understanding as they participate in the life of their nation.
There is, clearly, a compelling moral and political case for civic learning in schools and colleges, as well as an economic and intellectual one.
Accordingly, there is a fundamental obligation to produce critical-thinking, informed citizens who can contribute to the rich diversity of America, who can enhance and protect the freedoms we cherish. New Jersey is on the brink of making that commitment.
Linda Stamato is the Co-Director of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. She is a Faculty Fellow there as well. Active in the Morristown community, she serves on the trustee board of the Morristown and Morris Township Library Foundation and is a commissioner on the Morristown Parking Authority.
The opinions above are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.
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