Democracy Requires Citizenship Education, Now More Than Ever

Citizenship education helps a nation become “We the People.”
Citizenship education helps a nation become “We the People.”

In an 1816 letter to Colonel Charles Yancey, former President Thomas Jefferson wrote: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be.” The historic partnerships between knowledge and democracy on one hand and ignorance and authoritarianism on the other are part of what makes the Trump presidency so frightening.

In a recent New York Times op-ed essay, David French, a senior writer at the conservative journal National Review, found that many Trump supporters either blindly support or ignore the unacceptable behavior and destructive views of the President. They justify this by blaming, without any apparent evidence, “fake news” for the reports, or simply by claiming “the other side is worse.” French found it impossible to reason with people, even people who considered themselves moral and responsible citizens.

Donald Trump, climate change deniers, rightwing economic charlatans, and Confederacy celebrants are not the only ones responsible for the spread of ignorance that undermines a commitment to democratic values and practices. Unfortunately, people in charge of promoting active citizenship and democratic values as part of their stewardship over public education have also been less than responsible.

In New York State social studies councils, spearheaded by the Long Island Council for the Social Studies (LICSS), are challenging the de-emphasis on history and citizenship in public school curriculum. They see it is part of a national trend emphasizing reading and math skills and Common Core aligned standardized tests. Readers are encouraged to read and sign their online letter to the New York Board of Regents, the governing body for education in New York State, and the state education commissioner.

The LICSS has an interesting position on testing. It opposes “over-testing,” a major problem in the Age of Common Core and supposed analytic accountability, but it is also concerned that states are testing the wrong things. Unfortunately, what is not tested is not taught. The LICSS argues that “Social Studies education is in crisis in the State of New York” partly because the State Education Department eliminated elementary and middle school Social Studies assessments, and is reducing the number of required high school social studies exams.

The LICSS advocates a school curriculum that prepares young people to be “effective citizens in our society, fully aware of their American heritage, as well as members of the interdependent global world, connected by technology, in which we all live.” They believe this requires the study of history and the meaning of citizenship starting in the earliest grades. The Council is especially concerned because “recent research has indicated deficiencies in students’ understanding of American Heritage and Civics, World History and Geography, and the accurate analysis and interpretation of information.”

In their letter, the LICSS does not dismiss the acquisition of reading, writing, speaking, and math skills. However, they argue these skills can best be taught while learning about the world, instead of through repetitive drills and prepping for tests.

The letter closes, “In this time of both global progress and challenges, Social Studies is more important and relevant than ever. It is imperative that Social Studies resume its historic place as a subject area which is valued and cherished as the great equalizer in developing reasoned, informed, and respectful civil discourse.”

Miami Dolphin players “take a knee” during the pre-game National Anthem to protest discrimination and police violence against
Miami Dolphin players “take a knee” during the pre-game National Anthem to protest discrimination and police violence against African Americans.

The Long Island Council for the Social Studies letter does not mention them, but I believe we need to thank professional football players in the National Football League for “taking a knee” while “taking a stand” for fundamental rights like freedom of speech, assembly, and petition promised all Americans in the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately President Trump, some NFL owners, and far too many football fans challenge their right to protest and fundamental constitutional rights.

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