Civics Class? No. A Civic Life? Yes!

Bill Schechter

Perspectives, the journal of the
Massachusetts Association for Supervision and Curriculum,
November/ December 2004

“Civility” has become a catchword at my high school, Lincoln-Sudbury-Regional High School, in Sudbury Massachusetts. We even have a Civility Committee that encourages everyone to be civil to everyone else. And who could possibly be against civility, courtesy and manners? What occasionally does seems strange, though, is that this emphasis on civility takes place in a school and in a society where civic life–both the concept and the practice–is disappearing. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it was a vibrant civic life that made civility a necessity in the first place. Now we have the civility without the civics.

Lincoln-Sudbury is a progressive public high school. We have no bells. Students have free time and can choose among a wide range of electives. Most departments are run democratically (more or less), and teachers have broad autonomy in their classrooms. Yet, in a school that celebrates the authentic, most students are caught up in the “get-into-a-hot-college” competition. They over-schedule themselves with all manner of activities that inevitably become part of “the resume.” While a few kids may have a wider social view, the student body generally shares a view of life based on individual success and happiness, devoid of any sense of “commonwealth.” Nowadays, the Student Senate has basically given up on debate or proposing new policies and instead organizes dances and raises money for good causes. It’s been civility all the way, and the administration appears to have appreciated this positive, conflict adverse attitude.

Unfortunately, most L-S staff–and we have an excellent one–do not model an active civic life for students. In the past, the faculty helped make policy decisions in collaboration with the administration. Now it accepts a vastly diminished role, and many of the younger teachers are seemingly unaware that things could be or ever were different.  This is not surprising given that many teachers share the same worldview as the students. At L-S, we pay tribute to civic virtues, but there is little in the way the school is run that educates students in democratic practice. Democracy is appreciated, but only in theory, on Lincoln Road. And it doesn’t start or stop here. Attendance at Town Meeting, Sudbury’s gift to the world, has also been declining for some time.

Is civics education necessary? The answer is an emphatic “Yes.”  We want and need young people to become active citizens, because that activism provides the heartbeat of a democratic society. But civics is much too important to be reduced to a course that not all students will have a chance to take or where they might be consigned to learning about the technical details of government bureaucracy. Civics should be a way of life that defines one’s relationship (and responsibilities) to both fellow citizens and society. You can teach civics until the cows come home, but until students have an opportunity for real participation in the life of their school and country, it’s just so much talk. Kids know the difference.

So how to teach civics in a meaningful way? There are several approaches, and they are all valid and necessary.

Regular classes have an important role to play. Whenever possible, and in whatever discipline, teachers should strive to make connections between the curriculum and current issues. Each of these “teachable moments” is an opportunity to encourage a civic consciousness. For example, in math class, students studying statistics should try to resolve the disagreements about whether the MCAS high-stakes standardized state exams are succeeding in raising standards in Massachusetts. There are good statistical arguments on both sides–let the kids thrash it out. In history, a lesson about the Mexican American War, WWI, or Vietnam should always make connections to the Iraq War as still another conflict where the casus belli was controversial.  In English, the possibilities are virtually endless, and these should include supporting journalism and a school newspaper. Science classes should make references to global warming, public policy debates, and the creationism controversy.

To the maximum extent possible, our curriculum should be biased in favor of making such contemporary connections. The bias, however, always needs to be expressed in the raising of certain questions and not in the information given or the conclusions reached.  By demonstrating how course material can provide context and advance an understanding of the world, we help to place the issue of relevance beyond dispute. “Why do I have to know this?” is soon replaced by “Tell me more.”

However, civic consciousness cannot be forged in classrooms alone. Schools have to create broad and inviting avenues to the outside world. One way to do this is through a service program, and we have an excellent one at L-S. It’s called the Martin Luther King Action Project (MLKAP), and it brings student volunteers to Boston-area soup kitchens, shelters, and food banks. MLKAP also sponsors AIDS marches, Thanksgiving dinners for the town’s elderly, and an April vacation Habitat for Humanity program in Philadelphia. Through MLKAP, students can fulfill the school’s service requirement and through their experiences develop qualities of empathy and social consciousness. Moreover, MLKAP helps isolated suburban youth become sensitized to a very different world, albeit one not very geographically distant from their own.

Service helps, but even that’s not enough. There are at least two other opportunities that schools have to create a civic life, apart from obvious things like encouraging student government to play a meaningful role.

No important historical holiday or anniversary should pass without a response by someone at the school. Sixtieth anniversary of the end of WWII?  Time for students to plant a tree or to invite veterans in. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday? Classes in any and all subjects should begin by reading some of his eloquent words. Anniversary of 9/11? At the very least, students should participate in a moment of silence. The hallways of the school should always be used to support the teaching of history and current issues. Holocaust Remembrances? Great. Murals about history painted on the walls? Definitely! The hallways should be used as an extension of the classroom. Where advertisers and corporate America try to “eroticize” our cultural environment, teachers should try to historicize or “civic-ize the school’s physical space. The entire school building can and should be mobilized to support the idea of a common involvement in a larger community across time and space.

Finally, students should be allowed to take positions on real issues, whether by signing petitions, lobbying, going to demonstrations, or advocating for change. I am not talking about class simulations here. However, caution is required. Anyone who has seen the classic film, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, knows that it isn’t difficult for a charismatic, well-intentioned teacher to unintentionally manipulate young people. There’s a fine line, and it needs to be respected.

So how to proceed? Where issues are most partisan, teacher/advisors should play the most passive role. For example, at L-S, we have a Young Democrats club and an ACLU chapter, but these are wholly student-driven activities. We also have a Gay/Straight Alliance, an Amnesty International, and a Free Tibet club. In each of these, students circulate petitions and try to organize around their issues. Once upon a time, we had an anti-apartheid group that organized, and attended demonstrations, and even built a Soweto-type shantytown in front of the school. In these activities as well, it is important for teachers to help provide guidance and structure, but for students to make the decisions. Unfortunately, there are no exact formulas that can guide a teacher. An appraisal of students’ maturity, a respect for their autonomy, common sense, the nature of the activity–all these factors need to be taken into consideration. Most important, teachers need to be aware of their power to persuade, and to temper their own desired outcomes with a respect for the educational value of good process. Activity advisers, no matter how sensitive and conscientious, won’t always get it “right.” But this isn’t reason enough to stop trying. We should take heart from Samuel Beckett’s words: “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.”

One expression of civic life this year came entirely from students: they walked out of school to protest the Iraq War. In such a case, it was the job of teachers to help students process the experience. One other instance deserving of mention involved the recent controversy surrounding gay marriage in Massachusetts. On March 11, 2004, the student and faculty coordinators of MLKAP organized an event called, “Democracy Day.” Buses were chartered to transport students, whatever their viewpoint, to the State House­–and over 100 students went–where pro- and anti-gay marriage demonstrators were lobbying and making their views known. For many of our students, this was their first exposure to “democracy in the streets.” They learned, among other things, that exercising democratic rights can be exhilarating.

These are some of the things we have done at L-S to encourage students to connect to the larger society to which they belong. Still, the school is hardly a hotbed of civic activism. There is far more preoccupation with GPAs, hot colleges, and SAT scores. Clubs that encourage a civic consciousness are tolerated, even applauded. However, a majority of students, faculty, and administration do not actively share the view that civics–as defined here–is as important to school culture as academic achievement or sports. To most, it’s an “extra,” one of many. Those committed to civic involvement believe a meaningful education must expose students to the democratic ethos. To this end, we are all held accountable not by the narrow and mind-numbing MCAS approach to education, but by the fundamental principles of our society.

Lincoln-Sudbury’s motto is “Think For Yourself, But Think Of Others.” Giving meaning to these words by creating a civil and vigorous civic life takes a lot of work, inside the classroom and out. Young citizens in a democratic society need adult role-models as well as opportunities to exercise their democratic rights. But no make-believe allowed here. As one alumnus recently wrote to his former teachers, “Please keep it real.”

This is easier said then done, particularly when many school leaders actually prefer authority, apathy, and good order. How important, then, that public school teachers remain committed to the transmission of values central to a democratic culture. There are few lessons more enduring and more important to teach.

Bill Schechter has taught history at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional H.S., in Sudbury, Mass., for the past 24 years.

All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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