Teaching Civic Responsibility

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Starting with the 2017-2018 school year, students in Minnesota schools will have to take a civics test on their knowledge of America’s history as well as on how our government works. They can start taking the test in 9th grade and have four years to get 30 out of 50 answers right – just 60 percent right for a passing grade.

While some wanted passing the test a requirement for graduation, that stipulation didn’t last long in the Minnesota Legislature as it considered the bill earlier this year. So, while students are required to the take the test, in the end it doesn’t matter if they pass or fail. 

However, it is hoped that studying for it will provide students with a basic knowledge about civics.

Minnesota is the 10th state to adopt the civics test for its high school students. The movement to get more civics education into America’s schools is coming from a variety of organizations and political leaders concerned about the dismal state of youth participation in government and what that means for the future of our republic.

“Only one in five Americans aged 18 through 29 cast a ballot in last year’s elections, marking 2014 as having the lowest youth voter-turnout in 40 years,” Alia Wong wrote in an article on civics and citizenship for the Atlantic magazine.

But low voter turnout is just one concern among those who worry about young people being disengaged and out of touch with how their government works. They also worry about their level of participation in the civic process and what that means to our country’s future.

Why are voting rates so low for young people and why are they so disengaged? Some will say that young people have always been slow to engage in society and politics. Some say it is a sign of a generation that really doesn’t care much about anything other than what is going on in their own lives. Their apathy could be simple disillusionment with the current system. What does it matter? Nothing changes and the power elites on Wall Street and in Washington will always control government. Government is so dysfunctional that it’s useless to try change it, they believe.

They see the stories coming out of the national media, as well as the state media, about how extreme polarization has made governing in Washington and St. Paul ineffective.

Further, from what they are seeing on TV, reading in the newspapers and on their phones, young people are learning the wrong lessons today about how government should work.

“Protesters shout down candidates, partisans get into violent confrontations and users of social media create daily streams of vitriol and hate,” Charles C. Haynes writes in his column carried above. “If Americans continue to ignore or devalue core civic virtues such as commitment to civil discourse, respect for the rights of others, concern for the common good and compassion for those in need, our experiment in democratic freedom is doomed.”

But we can’t leave all blame for what is happening or the responsibility for changing things up to the schools. Young people learn from the examples around them. If their parents aren’t engaged with the civic process, they see little reason they should be. If the members of their community aren’t engaged, but things still run smoothly for the most part, why bother taking the time to get involved. If their example is a lot of complaining and little action, then they will likely adopt that same level of involvement. If they see their parents and their parents’ friends taking part in coarsening the discussion on issues, they will adopt the same political language and interaction style.

There are dangers inherent in not being engaged with your government, from the local to the state to the federal levels.

When you let people run things for you, without public involvement and oversight, they tend to get a sense of entitlement. They don’t like being questioned. They begin to think they have certain perks and pay coming to them for all their hard work. They pass laws and regulations to benefit themselves and their friends. Kind of sounds like where we are today.

It also means that when the time comes where it matters that you show up, that it matters that you exercise influence on government to effect change, you will lack the skill and knowledge needed to be effective.

Civics promoters see effective teaching of civics in schools as involving four essential facets. Students need to learn the skills that allow them to write effective essays that can convince others of the soundness of their point of view; they need the knowledge of how the system works; they need be able to engage in controversial issues without alienating those they are trying to reach; and they need to combine those three lessons into action, such as voting, participating in the political progress, or running for office.

Through the skills they learn and actions they take, young people can have an impact on the political system they otherwise see as too big, or too complex, to be changed or influenced.

In her article, Wong says that the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines civic education as ‘all the processes that affect people’s beliefs, commitments, capabilities, and actions as members or prospective members of communities.’” More simply, it is “education in self-government.” The Joe Foss Institute, which has been backing the initiative in states for civics testing, sees its mission as getting schools to teach kids,  “How our government works and who we are as a nation, preparing them to exercise their vote, solve problems in their communities, and engage in active citizenship.”

Young people who are taught how the system works are more likely to vote and more likely to take part in what is happening in their communities. “Without shared participation in public life a citizen ‘never thinks of any collective interest, of any objects to be pursued jointly with others but only in competition with them, and in some measure at their expense,’” author Robert D. Putnam quotes British philosopher John Stuart Mill in his book Bowling Alone.

Early education is the key to setting the foundation for a person’s involvement in their community and their government. It is up to the schools, as well as all of us, to teach the importance of a civic education.

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