By Stephanie A, Master Tutor
As most parents learn quickly, children absorb everything, even when it seems they’re
not paying attention. Try hard to covertly communicate a piece of information to your
spouse and it’s inevitable that your child will ask you what you’re talking about before
you finish your sentence. In our current, polarized culture, even young children know that
there is something big that many grownups are in disagreement about, even if they can’t
comprehend what the details of the disagreement are. Therefore, it’s more important
than ever that schools consider making mandatory, a class on civics. Doing so can help
even the youngest student understand the need to learn the facts, debate effectively,
and take action in order to become well informed and responsible citizens.
Teaching students civics doesn’t have to be a dry, boring task weighted down by facts
and dates. To introduce an elementary student to civics, ask him what he would like to
see changed in his school. He might say that recess should be longer or that the
cookies in the cafeteria should be bigger. A high school student, asked the same
question, might complain about the school’s dress code. It is likely that the student who
wants a longer recess or a less stringent dress code is not the only student who feels
that way. In spite of the age disparity, each student’s issue offers an opportunity to teach
a lesson on civics.
Simply put, the study of civics involves the things people do that affect other people.
Learning the theories, practices and politics, as well as the duties and the rights of
citizenship can help develop life-long habits of being an engaged and informed
The greatest defense against ignorance is enlightenment. An awareness of how things
can get accomplished through cooperation and understanding can significantly reduce
misinformation, bigotry and stereotyping. It can also help students be critical consumers
of media. Knowing how our government works helps individuals embrace their rights
and their duties. Unfortunately, too few American-born citizens either know or care how
their government works because they mistake government for “politics.” In the states
that make high school graduation dependent on the ability to pass the citizenship test
naturalized citizens must pass, only 25% of high school students pass the test on their
first try. In New Jersey, only about 36% of young people between the ages of 18 and 24
participate in the voting process, leaving the decision-making about their future up to
people who won’t be around in that future.
Learning in elementary school how to make a convincing argument, write a speech or
meet civilly with the school’s administration to win the recess debate can leave an
impression that lasts into adulthood. Getting the dress code relaxed in high school very
likely will encourage the high school senior to make sure she knows how to cast her
absentee ballot when she is off at college. Both of these victories can build confidence
in our children.
Too many adults, bogged down by the everyday stresses of work, family and finances
often throw up their hands in exasperation over the politics of the day and rely instead on
broad, often false generalizations to justify their lack of engagement and discontent with
contemporary life. Students, taught civics early in life, are more likely to be community activists and voters. They are also less likely to put their future into someone else’s hands.