What is civics?
Within the next four years, every Illinois high school student will know.
Ironically, even some students taking civics at Lane right now do not know. Civics has a reputation for being a blow-off, free period seniors take. If you ask anyone to give you a definition of what civics actually is, you will probably get a hazy, simple answer that it has something to do with citizenship.
Merriam-Webster defines civics as “the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how government works.”
But the civics course at Lane has no textbook, no teacher, and no curriculum. Students are assigned to places like the main office or library and help administrators stuff envelopes and distribute papers. It is based on the idea of making students better citizens through service learning. Often students have free time to do their homework or work on college apps.
However, in August, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill mandating civics classes as a graduation requirement; all incoming freshmen next year will have to take a semester-long civics course by the time they graduate — a class different from the current one Lane offers.
Nine other states passed laws on new civics testing mandates in 2015, and the Civics Education Initiative campaign is attempting to make passing the U.S. Citizenship Test a high school graduation requirement in all 50 states. Instead of answering up to 10 questions like citizenship applicants have to, high school students would have to pass a 100-question exam.
It seems like everyone has a different perspective on what civics education should be. While Lane’s course is entirely based on community involvement, the U.S. Citizenship Test treats civics as simple memorization of facts about the government and its history.
The new Illinois requirement seems to encompass both views. The bill that Rauner signed into law, HB 4025, states, “Civics course content shall focus on government institutions, the discussion of current and controversial issues, service learning, and simulations of the democratic process.”
Shawn Healy, who formerly taught American Government and American History, claims that although public schools were initially created to teach the future generations of America how to be better citizens, “the social studies, and civics specifically, have been marginalized to the detriment of our civic health.”
“While reading, math, and science are certainly important for college and career, civics and the social studies speak to our membership in the community, state, country, and world,” Healy said, who is now the Civic Learning and Engagement Scholar for the McCormick Foundation Civics Program.
The lack of attention to civics is unjustified and dangerous; civic knowledge and awareness has been low in the U.S. and it has not been improving. According to a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) study in 2014, only 23 percent of 8th graders were considered proficient in civics; the overall scores in civic knowledge did not improve from 2010 or 1998. That is not even a full quarter of students demonstrating a strong understanding of their government and their roles as citizens.
The NAEP also found that despite having to pass the Constitution test to graduate, over three-quarters of high schoolers cannot name a power granted to Congress by the Constitution.
One can get through life not understanding Congress, but if a majority of our citizens are uninformed, apathetic, and detached from their government, is there even a point to democracy?
Jessica Marshall, CPS Civic Engagement and Service Learning Manager, argues that young people need to be civically engaged if they want the government making decisions they are happy with. “The people who are elected are the ones with power over the issues we face,” Marshall said; the people voting are the ones who give these electees power. If people are not voting, the government officials elected will not be reflective of the majority’s demands and cannot be expected to meet the majority’s needs.
Knowing and understanding the basic principles of how our government works is crucial to understanding an individual’s political role, and service learning alone will not make students better citizens. However, solely knowing how a bill becomes a law will not make someone a good citizen and productive member of society.
That is why the new bill specifically includes “the discussion of current and controversial issues” as a required element of the course, along with “service learning” and “simulations of the democratic process.”
“While most students learn factual knowledge about the U.S. and Illinois Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the American Flag, too often they miss out on the hands on experiences critical for building the skills, attitudes, and behaviors necessary for informed, effective participation in our democracy,” says Healy.
Knowing how to be civically engaged, how to be involved in a community, and how to voice one’s opinion and listen to others’ are all important elements of a quality civics education that rarely come up in students’ social studies classes.
In reference to teaching civics engagement, Marshall said, “If you aren’t explicitly doing it, setting aside time, it doesn’t just occur.”
For example, many school mission statements state that schools want their students to be globally aware, but Marshall claims a lot of schools do not actually do anything to make that happen.
The main point of civics is not solving all the world’s problems. We are not expecting to find the solution to police brutality or Islamophobia in a classroom. We are trying to teach students how to understand these problems and how to participate in their communities, so that eventually the solutions made by the government will be beneficial to the majority. As members of a democracy, we have the responsibility of voicing our opinions and listening to the opinions of others.
Unfortunately, according to a Gallup poll in 2014, Illinois residents trusted their state government the least out of all of the U.S. states. While this was attributed to economic difficulties and former governors going to jail, problems in the government should motivate citizens to become more involved instead of mistrusting and giving up on their government.
This is where civics can help citizens learn how to deal with political issues and fix them.
“Not only will well-taught civics classes build trust in government among students, but it will also increase their confidence that through participation in our democracy, can make these government institutions more responsive to residents’ needs,” Healy said.
The new civics classes will teach students about the government so they will be comfortable with it and can utilize it to impact our society in the ways they want. Through in-class discussions, students will be encouraged to explore and discuss current issues they care about.
Perhaps the lack of this in current social studies classes is the reason for low electoral participation amongst youth today.
“We want young people to care but we don’t give you the opportunities to participate,” Marshall said.
Because civics can be applied to many topics, the class will feel individualized and applicable to students’ lives. Part of the purpose is making it personal so that students care and realize their significance and impact as a citizen. This requirement might just be one of the realistic and relevant classes students will take in high school.
It might be difficult to implement a class that encourages analytical thinking about the complex social issues that may sometimes be offensive, and still maintain a safe learning environment. At a school as diverse as Lane, there are bound to be clashing views and opinions. But the real world is even more diverse, touchy and uneasy, and avoiding talking about issues will never result in solutions.
Undoubtedly, the 20th century did see a lot of gains for minority groups. Maybe civics became so neglected in our school system because everyone has rights now, right? De jure segregation does not exist, so apparently de facto segregation must not either. Women have suffrage, so gender equality must exist. The world cried “Never again,” after the Holocaust, so religious genocides must not exist either, and religious prejudice will never escalate to those levels of extremity.
It’s time to stop pretending these problems do not exist anymore. It’s time to stop pretending that racial tensions at the University of Missouri were a rare occurrence limited only to that university, that police brutality does not occur, that women making up 19.4 percent of Congress is acceptable, and that mosques are not being burnt down.