UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Can civics class make us civil?

Several years ago, the Colorado Legislature voted down a law which would have made the United States citizenship test a requirement for high school graduation. This rejection was necessary and appropriate because the reasoning behind the requirement was simply wrong. A high school diploma encompasses a body of evidence in competency for multiple disciplines and skills developed across thousands of hours: graduation is literally not about one test in one subset of one subject area. No school or society should invalidate a student’s entire body of work across multiple curricular areas and thousands of hours by disproportionately weighting a single standardized test of randomly chosen facts. However, beyond that obvious reason, Colorado rejected the law because the belief that answering simple multiple choice questions is a necessary and indispensable component of being a productive citizen is flawed.  

Granted, citizens can easily understand why the law about the citizenship test was proposed. Obviously society should expect that all adults know the basic rules of representative government. And at times it seems like too many people are clueless about the nature of our representative democracy. However, in many ways the standardized test for citizenship is not much more than a trivia game, and factual knowledge does not correlate with civil behavior and citizenship. If that were true, the events of January 6, 2021 would never have happened. Civics is rooted in the idea of being “civil” and being citizens who understand and engage in the participatory role of a democratic republic. Of course, understanding how the government works and what the role of a citizen is are integral parts of civics knowledge. If we understand that, then we clearly know fact-based objective tests have no indication of true civics knowledge and good citizenship. 

The citizenship test, like many content-based standardized tests, is nothing but a trivia contest, a bunch of Jeopardy questions masquerading as knowledge and wisdom. And that’s not what civics is really about. When looking at how students learn and understand civics, the data usually focuses on the small number of people who can “identify the three branches of government.” But the more important question is whether they truly know how the government works for them. Do they understand how representation works? Do they know how the state taxes their income and returns that money to them in benefits, infrastructure, defense, and yes even rebates? Do they really know what they mean when they claim to support smaller government or increased regulations? Michael Lewis’ book The Fifth Risk explored the problems that arise when people don’t truly understand, and thus cannot appreciate, how their government systems and public institutions function.

Jason Kosanovich, a social studies teacher in the southeast Denver suburbs, believes teens are actually yearning to understand civics and participate in their government, but often they don’t know how. Helping them understand the local relevance is, or at least should be, at the heart of civics education. It’s far too easy for young people to be turned off by the logistics when government class is simply about basic definitions of structure and system and functions.  “When we make it relevant and local,” he told me “they actually really care.” 

Teens, in the experience of many educators like Mr. Kosanovich, are actually quite passionate about issues that directly affect them and which they experience everyday. They care about potholes in their neighborhood and the constitutionality of red light cameras. And while those issues aren’t exactly trivial, young people are also dialed in to serious political issues about the privacy of healthcare, public safety balanced against individual rights, and issues of labor and industrial policies. When given the opportunity to engage with real world issues, they will research what their HOA says about the property rights of homeowners to display a flag or a banner. When it comes to local government especially, they truly care about what it does. Civics class should capitalize on the natural curiosity of kids and their tendency to be passionate about their rights.  

Civics should be about understanding the role of a citizen in our communities. Programs like “We the People” are a great way for kids to engage though few schools actually implement it. Knowledge of civics imparts an understanding, appreciation, and acceptance of the individual’s participatory role in that government, including the responsibility to maintain it. As one civics teacher noted when asked whether civics class can make people more civil, “I certainly hope so.”

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com