Failure of Our Civic Classes

With the urgent desire to increase American competitiveness globally, especially considering the tech race with China, our school system is putting heavy emphasis on STEM education, particularly the develop of artificial intelligence. The establishment of the Committee on STEM Education and the Every Student Succeeds Act portray the federal government’s desire to increase accountability in k-12 schools, with the ultimate desire to maintain American world leadership.

However, there seems to be a trade off between STEM education and civic engagement classes. A 2016 survey revealed that only 26% of Americans could name all three branches of government, while in 2011 this percentage was 38. Nearly one-third of Americans cannot name a single branch, only 17% of Americans trust the government (a historic low), and states lack accountability frameworks for civic classes.

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As a current student taking a combined AP U.S. Government and IB History of the Americas class, I found that the AP Government curriculum was centered largely on the numbers (that is, students were focused on getting good grades and test scores) and failed to motivate students to apply civic skills or formulate an opinion on politics. Who cares if a student knows buzzwords like the Iron Triangle or the Revolving Door if they lack the desire to vote, never contact their representatives, or cannot talk about a political issue for more than one minute? Students with an A in the class or a 5 on the AP exam hardly use their civic knowledge outside of academics, yet are considered “experts” on the topic on their transcript.
Clearly, if civic classes truly produced experts, more Americans would know the differences between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

How then, can we improve our civics classes, or aid civics classes in producing informed and engaged citizens? While I am no expert, here are some ideas:

  • Classes should explore service opportunities, hold more mock trials, debates in class, and apply curriculum to current events, and thus making participation a larger part of a grade
  • Promote civic education at an early age through spending more time on social studies (since elementary schools usually focus on math and reading)
  • Increase participation in activism clubs
  • Hold mock elections starting in elementary school
  • Make grassroots organizations and events more accessible, especially in regards to transportation
  • Stimulate discussion of controversial ideas, both in school and out
  • Participate in school walk outs, strikes, and marches

Regardless, our approach to civics must change. The right to vote and participate in government is a privilege that must be exercised through an educated lens, and we cannot afford to continue to cede politics to dominant, overpowered groups.

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