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Why civics education needs to become a trend

During an interview, retiring Co-Lin professor David Higgs mentioned he’d noticed a deficiency in students filling his college classroom – a lack of basic civics knowledge.

“They need a better understanding of how the government works,” he told me. “A basic understanding of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. Things like the duties of the President, the obligations of the Congress to the President or the relations of the Supreme Court to the President.”

Higgs said academic instruction has been replaced with an inundation of media, which is “always in some type of harangue over politics.”

“It seems to be a turnoff to students,” he said, “and we need to get them to understand they are a part of that process and to be prepared.”

I mulled over his assessment for a few months, then decided to conduct a little survey one Monday night. I gathered my recording equipment and braved a parking lot on Brookway Boulevard where teenagers gather for social interaction, a spot where civics is the furthest thing from their minds.

ME: Can anybody name the three branches of the government?

GUY: I can’t. (He laughs.) GIRL: Is it legislative? Uh . . .  (She snaps fingers in frustration.) GUY: Republic?

ME: How old do you have to be to run for President?

GUY: 21? (He laughs.) GIRL: 25?

ME: Does anybody know who the secretary of state is?

GUY: Nancy Pelosi?

A couple of 17-year-olds hanging out around the fringe fared a little better. They knew the branches of government and the age you can run for president (35 for those of you who are wondering), as well as some of the vice president’s responsibilities. But could they name any of the amendments that make up the Bill of Rights?

GIRL: Not off the top of my head, but I probably do know them . . .

The problem isn’t localized. Last year, 14 plaintiffs sued the state of Rhode Island, arguing that it violates students’ constitutional rights. How? By failing to teach civics, leaving students unprepared for life as responsible citizens.

But David Higgs says civics knowledge isn’t the only thing lacking. Civics teachers are scarce, too. “We’re a capitalistic society,” he explained. “Most political science majors go to law school. There’s more opportunity out there for them in that regard, not in teaching.” 

Thirty-year-old Walt Allen bucked that trend. He has a degree in history and a master’s in social studies, and he’s teaching students at Loyd Star.

“It’s so easy to get people interested in social studies because it’s all the dramatic aspects of our lives – politics, finances, you know – all whirled into one. I feel bad for science and math teachers because the deck is stacked against them,” he smiles.

Allen did his student teaching at a public school in the Bronx, but his strategy there was the same as it is here in Mississippi. It’s something he learned from his high school government teacher on a military base in South Korea: “He said, ‘If you don’t take away anything from my class, understand that the legislative branch makes laws. The executive branch enforces laws, and the judicial branch interprets laws.’ If I can get a student to understand that, then they understand pretty much how the government works.”

Allen says his students are familiar with the broad stroke of ideas, but the specifics of government trip them up. Like how old you have to be to vote.

“I run into that a lot. We have students who aren’t in households where an adult is actively voting. That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of lack of understanding, and it’s really sad. It’s not this generation’s fault. It’s the fault of every generation that’s come before them.”

Allen points to growing distrust of government that’s harming young citizens. He says it’s a shame. “We certainly have our problems, but if you’ve traveled anywhere else in the world, it doesn’t take long to see we have got a pretty good thing going.”

Back at the parking lot, a recent high school graduate admits one thing from her civics lessons really stuck with her – discussions about Roe v. Wade.

GIRL: That kind of stuff got to me.

ME: What did you learn?

GIRL: Like, abortion is wrong, but, like, if someone has sex without consent and they want to abort the baby, I don’t find that wrong.

ME: So you learned this in . . .

GIRL: Government class.

You can contact Kim Henderson at kimhenderson319@gmail or follow her on Twitter at @kimhenderson319.