The Importance of Civics Education

By Joetta Sack-Min

The middle school students in Donna Phillips’ American History classes thought they were pretty savvy about politics and which presidential candidate they would choose. After all, the eighth-graders had spent months analyzing and discussing current events as well as each candidate’s platform in class.

But shortly before the mock presidential election held at Robert Frost Middle School in Rockville, Md., last October, Phillips surprised her classes with a pop quiz to gauge their views on issues such as the economy, the environment, and gun control. The answers showed which candidate was more closely in line with their beliefs -- and sometimes, it was not the person the students planned to support.

“They found out that a lot of times these men are not polar opposites,” Phillips says. “That’s the hardest thing for students to understand, that not everything is black and white and there’s a gray area, and it leads to more critical thinking.”

The historic nature of the 2008 presidential election and news of the floundering national economy certainly helped pique student interest in civics education last fall. But overall, schools have seen a decades-long decline in civics and government courses and students’ general interest in democratic values, advocates say. That decline has not only left students less informed about the basic workings of government, but also has led to less participation in government and their communities.

“We not only owe our young people a solid grounding in math and science, foreign languages, and all the rest but we also owe them an education in democratic citizenship, and I’m not at all sure if they’re getting it as well as we’d like,” says Lee H. Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman who now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “This is a hugely important issue for young people and our country itself. Too many lack a fundamental understanding of our democracy.”

With the election of Barack Obama, civics education advocates hope to see a renewed push for students to learn about the functions of government and a democratic society, and to find better ways for them to experience these actions firsthand.

“There’s a strong national movement to renew the civic mission of schools, and it’s a timely movement that is catching hold for a variety of reasons,” says Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. “It’s not just about learning but working through government, not just about how a bill gets through Congress. What’s more important than that is for students to learn how to be engaged, ethical citizens.”

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