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A Renaissance of Civics

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
October 24, 2014

Given this month’s theme of reviving civic education, I suspect that you may be anticipating an impassioned plea to educators for more focused and complete curricula in American civics. Well OK, I’ll try not to disappoint. But I want to describe an action plan that transcends generalities and the too-often-seen would-a, could-a, should-a type of language that usually results in no action at all.

First, how bad is the problem? However bad you may think the problem is, it is probably worse. Most of our states have civics education standards and results that are absolutely awful. It’s a wonder that students know anything about how our political system came to be, how it is should work and what it can do. The lack of civics is causing political system dropouts at a very early age. Many young adults under 25 years old are not even voting.

On the other end of the spectrum, many baby boomers have dropped out as well. Award-winning actress, author & fitness icon Raquel Welch says, “60 percent of Americans are Boomers, and yet they are all but invisible in the popular media and American culture.” This leaves only the “middle group” engaged but still relatively ill-equipped to exercise active civics roles in our times.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) informs us that in 2006, nearly 30 percent of high school seniors were knowledgeable and could demonstrate proficiency in civics and government. Poor, non-whites were at a higher disadvantage. The danger is that those making up the new demographic social landscape, now and in the future, are not sufficiently taught American history, values and other civic subjects. The current focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is being accomplished at the expense of civics education as well as fine arts and liberal education. So we may end up having a nation of scientific students who have no clue about our national origins, development or the political system.

Sure – let’s teach all our children the truth about the formation, development and nurturing of our national values and let’s make that a captivating story of greatness. There was good and bad along the way to greatness. Civics education must therefore teach both, explaining the historical setting and context in which those good and bad things happened and providing the richness of explanation that only past events will allow. One of my favorite quotes about history is from my favorite historian and philosopher Will Durant: “The past is the present, all unfurled for analysis. The present is the past, all ready for action!”

Brescia oct

Our nation has changed so much in the latter decades of the 20th century to our current second decade of the 21st century. Therefore, I propose that we not merely call for a revival of civic education but rather, a renaissance – a rebirth that will bring forth a new civics based on the changing demographics and national social fabric – today’s social tapestry. In our desired renaissance of civic education, let’s try very hard not to simply recreate the civics education of the past. In other words, if you are of a certain age, you may remember that in the 1950s civic education told the story of the national melting pot – how as citizens we should all strive to be as homogenous as possible. If our families came from other countries, we were taught to not speak those languages at home or in society – we were encouraged to learn and speak English exclusively. Let’s teach about and encourage diversity, but not at the expense of losing the commonality of Americanism – what made us great.

One change that we seem to have undergone is the elimination of social and political civility. As adults, we sometimes provide a poor example to our children by vilifying those who disagree with our own values and beliefs. We even qualify the degree in which someone is an “American” based on that person’s political leanings. This is wrong and needs to stop immediately.

Our civics education– the renaissance version – must teach that Americans stand and support each other through thick and thin and that we accept many different personal perspectives and beliefs. That quality is something that made us great and its disappearance will make us far less great. In my opinion, the No Labels organization has it right. Public servants and politicians earn the trust and respect of each other by making promises not to publicly berate and belittle each other. Rather, they meet more frequently to try to solve seemingly large-scale legislative challenges that we now face.

It’s always a good thing when nonprofits and civic groups can supplement what the local school districts teach about civics. For example, the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute in Odessa, Texas is currently teaching civics to every third and fourth-grader within its local independent school district (ISD). They arrive at the Institute by school bus every day and are taught how bills become laws, the roles and functions of our national political leaders and about the three branches of government – something less than half of all Americans can name.

The Institute views its role as complementary to that of the schools and the parents. It also reaches out to the underserved and the disadvantaged by teaching leadership, ethic and civic service to groups of migrant workers’ children in West Texas. It’s a winning formula, says, John Walsh of “America’s Most Wanted” during a recent visit to the JBS Institute, “You are providing the region and the nation with a very valuable service – keep it up!”

Our much-anticipated renaissance of civics education should canvas what the civics framework for the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) calls “five organizing questions” about what every citizen should know:

  1. What are civic life, politics and government?
  2. What are the foundations of the American political system?
  3. How does the government established by the Constitution embody the purposes, values and principles of American democracy?
  4. What is the relationship of the United States to other nations and to world affairs?
  5. What are the roles of citizens in American democracy? 

It’s not an exhaustive or inclusive list but it’s a great starting point – let’s start now.

Author: Robert Brescia can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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