Civic education’s limitations

The latest criticism of public schools today is that they have largely failed to prepare students to be good citizens (“Educate to unify: The urgent need for better civic education in our dangerously divided nation,” New York Daily News, Oct. 7).  Yet I wonder if greater emphasis on citizenship in schools will change matters.

I say so because current events demonstrate that this country is a democracy in name only.  In reality, it is an oligarchy.  America is divided for good reason.  The top one percent exert a stranglehold on virtually all issues.  Even if teachers were allowed to honestly focus on controversial subjects in the news, which in most cases they may not, I question what difference that would make. For example, the protests about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court did not succeed.

In the final analysis, there is growing cynicism on the part of the public about how democracy works in reality.  We should certainly try to change that attitude in young people while they are in public school.  But I seriously doubt anything significant will come of it.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

8 Replies to “Civic education’s limitations”

  1. How else to improve voters’ awareness and sophistication if not through the public schools?

    Currently, most public schools teach (or at least try to teach) the mechanics of govt — i.e., three branches + federal vs. state vs. local + possibly the Bill of Rights.

    My impression is that few public schools teach much, if anything, about the major public policy issues that usually dictate how a person will vote — abortion, guns, gays, taxes, economics (including federal spending, deficit, multiplier, productive vs. passive investment, income/asset distribution), campaign finance, entitlements, “welfare”, health-care spending/insurance, unions. My impression, again, based on my regular conversations with upper-middle-class friends, is that most of even these mature, well-educated voters have at best limited knowledge re these issues (lawyers generally are somewhat more knowledgeable than the other voters).

    Likewise, few public schools teach students how to rationally evaluate opposing candidates — i.e., how to distinguish correct from misleading assertions, how to evaluate promises in light of feasibility and past conduct, how to distinguish feel-good truisms or negative cheap shots from substantive policy statements.

    Public schools could even teach students to be aware of the tendency to uncritically adopt the political views of their family, friends or teachers.

    Agree that teaching these subjects in the public schools could expose administrators and teachers to criticism from parents/media who prefer that the students remain ignorant or who believe that the teaching is skewed to favor views that the critic opposes. But, the societal benefits gained by teaching these subjects far outweighs the potential downsides. The key is getting the school board to buy into this approach — probably impossible in many of the redder areas.


  2. Labor Lawyer: Teaching students how the government in this country works in reality is highly unlikely because it would be seen as unpatriotic. When students perceive that what they have been taught contradicts what actually goes on behind the scenes, they either demonstrate as in the Viet Nam era or become increasingly cynical.


  3. Labor Lawyer: I wish teachers were free to inject reality into the classroom about controversial subjects. But they can’t. During the height of the Viet Nam war, the principal confiscated all copies of the school newspaper titled The Warrior because it contained an editorial opposing our intervention. Not to be deterred, students published a newspaper retitled The Worrior and distributed it off campus. The name change was not only clever but effective in getting disinterested students involved.


  4. Much as I appreciate Ed Hed’s thrice-weekly output, if I don’t get to your Monday post until late Tuesday I am dissuaded from commenting because it’s unlikely to be read by anyone, but I don’t have that much to say anyway.

    I don’t think high schoolers are well informed, or informed at all, about the issues cited by Labor Lawyer. But your harsh assesment that democracy has been replaced by oligarchy is wrong. I don’t know what you are implying with your reference to the Kavanaugh “protests” which “did not succeed.” My concern is that citizens, young or old, are informed when voting. I’m not so concerned with non-citizens or uninformed non-voters.

    Disdain the 1%? Buy nothing from Amazon. Boycott any product invented by someone who leveraged Capitalism to get rich.

    My preference would be an impartial, certainly non-partisan, Civics curriculum in high school, balancing history with current events. “America is divided for good reason.” For perspective, review how despised were Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln, FDR.

    American public schools, exemplified by those in your Los Angeles Unified School District, reflect their local demographics. State or national efforts to impose Civics courses will be subject to the same cultural and political forces evident on college campuses. Then what?


  5. Lancer to Bruin: Thanks for your reply. I question if young people in particular will ever be as involved in civic affairs as they were during the Vietnam war. I think cynicism has replaced the idealism that characterized that era. The hands of teachers are largely tied by the policies of the districts where they teach. So even if they wanted to make instruction more relevant, I don’t think they can.


  6. More proof of the left in our educational systems.
    To make the point that the “Kavanaugh protests” did not “succeed” is disgusting. Therefore, you must believe that you are guilty until proven innocent.
    To mention the protesting during the Vietnam War is troubling. Does the name Bill Ayers sound familiar?


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