Because of what I do, I meet great teachers. They are the ones who come to conferences and booksignings, who seek out a writer. California’s Jim Bentley is one of those great ones. He teaches fifth grade and, in addition to having his students read history, he has them actively participate in civic activities.
I asked him some questions recently and, as I expected, he gave me much to think about.
What is the proper role of civic education in America?
Here are Jim’s words:
“When we look at the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 at the requirement for new states admitted to the union to guarantee a portion of their lands be dedicated to public schools, my understanding is that the measure was designed to educate young adults to take their place at the leadership table. It wasn’t necessarily to teach just the three R’s of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. It wasn’t to promote sports over academics. It was to try and create a skilled, learned electorate.
“We’ve abandoned that charge today in large measure. Today’s educators should be focused on providing their students with three things in equal measures when it comes to civics: 1) knowledge 2) skills 3) dispositions.
“Students need a working knowledge of how their government was designed, the processes involved, and most importantly the “big ideas” behind it all. Kids need access to core concepts such as limited government, representative democracy, natural rights philosophy, the role and responsibilities of citizens, the differences between positive and negative rights, the purpose of government, how a citizen can become involved.
“Knowledge quickly evaporates unless it’s applied. That’s where skills come in. If kids learn how the political/civic process is supposed to work, they next need to obtain the skills to interact with it. Kids are taught “to do” math or “to do” science or “to do” physical education or art or music, yet kids in public schools are too often not provided the chance “to do” civics. That’s where programs like Project Citizen come in. This is a program created by the Center for Civic Education, designed to teach students about public policy and how to monitor and influence it. Students are encouraged to tackle community problems, apply their knowledge of civics to them, and offer a public policy solution to the problem. It involves reading, research, writing, math, critical thinking skills, communication and presentation skills, and civics. . . Knowledge not applied is like a set of gloves not worn; both are quickly forgotten.
Finally, kids need their teachers to instill within them the dispositions, the attitudes, that they rightfully have a role to play as young people and later as adults.
If kids gain knowledge of civics, if they are encouraged to experiment with it in the laboratory of the classroom, and if they are taught to believe that their voice counts, they just might develop a sense of passion rather than apathy when it comes to political life. My students two years ago lobbied the 5th largest school district in the State of California to spend money to purchase 17 running tracks at older elementary schools so that kids and teachers can promote aerobic conditioning. They gathered a large body of knowledge about how a school district works and finances projects. They refined their presentation skills and powers of persuasion. The presented their case, had a few setbacks, and ultimately were told “no” by a superintendent. When that happened, they didn’t give up. They had developed several key attitudes: resiliency, efficacy, self-confidence. When they told the superintendent they appreciated his time and that they were going to go to the school board, the administrator changed his mind. Perhaps he understood that 10 year old kids with the knowledge and presentation skills and dispositions they possessed would be a very difficult force to say “no” to in public. My students gained 17 running tracks for 17 old schools at a cost of about $2 million dollars that had been raised almost a decade before from bond sales. When kids learn they can make a difference, it’s hard to stop them.