Wednesday, September 07, 2022

Civics Can Save Us

Civics Can Save Us
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, September 7, 2022, p. A5

Like Robert Frost confronting “two roads diverged in a wood,” Americans must choose. One road requires heavy lifting, rebuilding the decaying democracy our founders gave us; the other is an easy stroll down the green fairways of indifference to an authoritarian dictatorship.

As with other public challenges, the outcome will be decided in our public schools – a core institution for a self-governing people.

Boston Latin School was founded in 1635; the first free, taxpayer-supported public school four years later. Pennsylvania created the first statewide free education in 1790.

By the 1830s schools were adding years of instruction, the first high schools, and Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “It is by the attention it pays to public education that the original character of American civilization is at once placed in the clearest light.” He noted laws “establishing schools in every township, and obliging the inhabitants, under pain of heavy fines, to support them.”

“The character of American civilization” can still be judged by the attention we pay to public education. We’ve yet to add an additional two years of free education. Too many students are ignorant of American history and the provisions of our Constitution. MAGA politicians and parents attack underpaid K-12 teachers who ultimately leave their jobs. College tuition soars, while many university presidents are paid $1 million or more (over twice the U.S. president’s take-home pay), and student loan borrowers now owe $1.75 trillion.

The most significant K-12 class for future citizens governing themselves is “civics education.”

Civics education is nothing new, and its content and rationale change over time. In 820 BC the “civics education” Sparta lawgiver Lycurgus encouraged was designed to create citizens devoted to the public good.

By the 19th Century civics education was recognized as a major goal of public schools. In New England, de Tocqueville reported, “every citizen receives . . . the history of [the] country, and the leading features of its Constitution. … politics are the end and aim of education ….”

Today, the National Council for the Social Studies is the go-to source for civics education. Their position paper, “Revitalizing Civic Learning in Our Schools” should be required reading for every superintendent, school board member, principal, teacher, and parent.

It begins, “As Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, John Dewey and other great educators understood, public schools do not serve a public so much as create a public. The goal of schooling [is] to equip a citizenry with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed for active and engaged civic life.”

Note the words “skills.” It is not sufficient that students read the Constitution and study Congress. As one researcher found, “students did best when discussing current events in class daily, simulating democratic processes regularly and engaging in community service annually.... [With only a] fleeting knowledge base [students] are poorly prepared for the demands of democratic governance.”
[Photo credit: Iowa State University; "Legislative Day is an opportunity for youth to learn about one of the core program areas of 4-H — leadership and civic engagement ... Youth participants were able to ... meet members of the Iowa House of Representatives and Senate to discuss issues affecting youth." March 3, 2020.]

Add Claire Nader’s new book for kids, parents and teachers, “You Are Your Own Best Teacher,” and there’s still hope for us.

Nicholas Johnson’s social studies teacher was Dr. John Haefner.


Two roads. Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken,” Poetry Foundation, (“. . . Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.”)

Boston Latin; the first free; first statewide free. “History of education in the United States,” Wikipedia, (“The first American schools in the thirteen original colonies opened in the 17th century. Boston Latin School was founded in 1635 and is both the first public school and oldest existing school in the United States.[1] The first free taxpayer-supported public school in North America, the Mather School, was opened in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1639.[2][3]”)

“K-12,” Wikipedia, (“U.S. public education was conceived of in the late 18th century. In 1790, Pennsylvania became the first state to require some form of free education for everyone regardless of whether they could afford it. New York passed similar legislation in 1805. In 1820, Massachusetts became the first state to create a tuition-free high school, Boston English.[2] The first K–12 public school systems appeared in the early 19th century. In the 1830s and 1840s, Ohioans were taking a significant interest in the idea of public education.”)

Alexis de Tocqueville. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835/1840) See generally, “Alexis de Tocqueville,” Wikimedia,, and “2. Democracy in America.” Also, “Democracy in America,” Wikipedia,

Quotes from “Democracy in America” used in the column can be found by searching for them in the text: Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. I, 1835, Henry Reeve translation,

Ignorance of history/Constitution. Glenn Ricketts, “Knowledge of American History Rapidly Becoming History,” American History, National Association of Scholars, March 23, 2015, (“Now on the heels of our report comes the US Education Department’s National Assessment of Educational Progress quadrennial survey, The Nation’s Report Card: U.S. History 2010. As the title indicates, this study measures knowledge of the rudiments of US history among K-12 students at the elementary, middle and secondary levels. … eighty per cent of fourth graders, eighty-three per cent of eighth graders and eighty-eight per cent of high school seniors flunked the minimum proficiency rating. And within the senior cohort, a mere two per cent correctly answered a question about the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.”)

“Editorial: Citizenship 101: Too many Americans are ignorant of the basics of democracy,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 29, 2014, (“A survey of adults conducted in September by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that only 36% could name all three branches of the U.S. government; 35% couldn’t name even one. Only 27% of respondents knew that it requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a president’s veto, and 21% wrongly thought that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision must be returned to Congress for reconsideration. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg center, said the survey “offers dramatic evidence of the need for more and better civics education.”

Today, “Warren wrote, ‘education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship.’” [Chief Justice Earl Warren, Brown v. Board of Education, 1954]

“[Retired] Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor … in a 2008 article written with former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, … argued that ‘civic education has been in steady decline over the past generation, as high stakes testing and an emphasis on literacy and math dominate school reforms. Too many young people today do not understand how our political system works.’”)

Attacks on teachers. Edward Graham, “Who is Behind the Attacks on Educators and Public Schools? The manufactured outrage perpetuated by dark money networks is both a danger to educators and a distraction from helping students and parents,” neaToday, Dec. 14, 2021, (“This peddling of misinformation and fear has led to a sharp increase in threats aimed at educators and school board officials, many of whom have been intimidated and threatened in alarming numbers across the country—outside school grounds, across social media, and, most notoriously, at local school board meetings.

Small groups of radicalized adults, egged on by these bad actors, have been whipped into a furor over COVID safety protocols and the false notion that children are being taught “critical race theory.” Some of these protests have ended in chaos, with school board members in Virginia receiving death threats and protesters in San Diego County forcing their way into a school board meeting and declaring themselves the newly-elected board.

Educators across the country have also shared horror stories about the assaults and abuses they’ve had to endure for simply doing their jobs. Teachers in California and Texas were physically assaulted over wearing masks, and in Arizona, a group of men were arrested and charged after attempting to abduct an elementary school principal for following COVID-19 guidelines.”)

Tuition increases. Melanie Hanson, “College Tuition Inflation Rate,” Education Data Initiative, last updated Aug. 10, 2022, (Numerous calculations. e.g., “After adjusting for currency inflation, college tuition has increased 747.8% since 1963.”)

College presidents pay. Anya Kamenetz, “More College Presidents Join the Millionaires’ Club,” nprEd, Dec. 13, 2017, (“The chief executives of 59 private colleges and seven public universities took home more than $1 million in total compensation in 2015, according to an analysis released this week by The Chronicle of Higher Education.”)

Darian Somers and Josh Moody, “10 Public Universities Run by Highest-Paid Presidents; These university presidents make at least $1 million,” USNews Education, Aug. 6, 2019, (“The U.S. president makes $400,000 per year. But numerous university presidents make more than double that. At least 40 National University presidents earn twice what President Donald Trump does on a yearly basis, according to a 2019 report from The Chronicle of Higher Education.”)

Total student loan debt. Anna Helhoski, Ryan Lane, “Student Loan Debt Statistics: 2022,” Nerdwallet, Aug. 25, 2022, (“Student loan borrowers in the United States owe a collective nearly $1.75 trillion in federal and private student loan debt as of August 2022, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.”)

Lycurgus. “Lycurgus (lawgiver),” (“Lycurgus (/laɪˈkɜːrɡəs/; Greek: Λυκοῦργος Lykourgos; fl. c. 820 BC) was the quasi-legendary lawgiver of Sparta ….”)

De Tocqueville, “every citizen.” See above, “Alexis de Tocqueville” and “Quotes from ‘Democracy in America.’”

National Council for the Social Sciences.

“Revitalizing Civic Learning in Our Schools.” “Revitalizing Civic Learning in Our Schools; A Position Statement of National Council for the Social Studies,” Approved 2013, (“As Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, John Dewey and other great educators understood, public schools do not serve a public so much as create a public.1 The goal of schooling, therefore, is not merely preparation for citizenship, but citizenship itself; to equip a citizenry with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed for active and engaged civic life.”)

One researcher found. Shawn Healy [Civic Learning Scholar, McCormick Foundation; taking “con” position], “Con,” Marcia Clemmitt, “Civic Education: Are Students Learning How to be Good Citizens? Pro/Con Should states make the U.S citizenship test a graduation requirement” CQPress, CQ Researcher, Feb. 3, 2017, (“students did best when discussing current events in class daily, simulating democratic processes regularly and engaging in community service annually. These practices are too often neglected in content-centered courses, and students depart with a fleeting knowledge base and are poorly prepared for the demands of democratic governance.”)

Claire Nader book. Claire Nader, “You Are Your Own Best Teacher: Sparking the Curiosity, Imagination, and Intellect of Tweens,” Essential Books, Washington, D.C., (2022) (Jonathan Kozol (author, “Death At An Early Age”): “[An] engaging book about the need for children . . . to speak without self-censorship and to ‘open their own doors and windows’ …”

Juliet Schor (Boston College Professor of Sociology): “Should we be surprised that young people, such as Greta Thunberg, Leah Namugerwa, and Jamie Margolin sparked the largest climate change demonstration in history? No, says Claire Nader … in this engaging, surprising, and wise book ….”

Plus seven additional endorsements.)

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1 comment:

Jim Claypool said...

Can we find someone other than athletic coaches to teach it?