I'm a teacher. I don't formally teach social studies, or political science, or history, or government. But in order for my students to understand what I do teach—cultural anthropology and women's studies—they have to have a basic understanding of how political systems work—especially ours—and need to know the basics about legislation, politics, civil rights and social change and how they are affected by political and social systems.
I teach college students at a working class state university. My entry level classes have students who are fresh out of mostly public high schools. Last week, once again, as I do each semester, I faced the challenge of explaining not only why they should vote, but what that vote means to them, in real life terms, and how their activism, or lack of it, will affect their lives, now and in the future.
I'm in New York. Not one student could name both of our U.S. senators. Only one student could name their Congressperson. None had a clue about their state assembly persons or senators.
I wasn't shocked. Happens every fall. Sure, they all know the name of the president, whose campaign was effective in getting out the youth vote in the last presidential election. But political engagement is not just about electing a president.
We need to plan ahead and get more youth engagement in midterms. With 2012 looming, only one of my students could name a Republican candidate for the primaries and wasn't really sure what she was all about, nor could they articulate the difference between Democratic and Republican party platforms. Actually, they didn't know what a platform was.
They don't read newspapers. They don't blog. Only a few said they watch The Daily Show. Two students who happen to be LBGT knew who Rachel Maddow is. In women's studies, none had ever heard of Emily's List or NARAL. They all have internet access. They spend a lot of time texting each other because they all have cell phones. A majority have facebook pages.
Question is, what are they talking to each other about?
Last Tuesday, our class was visited by NYPIRG campus rep who registered over 100 students to vote. NYPIRG is non-partisan. I'm not. Be that as it may, what good is it to register students to vote, if they don't have a clue about who or what they are voting for, other than for POTUS in 2012?
I talk with other teachers across the US. Many have raised the same concerns.
I'm not saying that there are no schools, K through 12, that incorporate civics and civil/human rights into their curricula. All I want to assert here today is that from my point of view, they don't seem to be doing a very good job at it.
We know we have problems with the U.S. system of education. I'm not here to debate that. What I'd like to say is that each one of us, whatever label we wear—liberal, Democrat, progressive, activist—is responsible. Each one of us who does know how the system works, who votes, who has strong feelings about democracy and justice, has a responsibility to teach someone who as of yet doesn't know this. Not everyone who is reading this is a teacher. But we all better become political educators and not make assumptions that what is common knowledge to us is to our young folks.
Not all of us have children or grandchildren. Everyone reading this today must know someone young—a niece, nephew, godchild, neighbor's kid—or have co-workers with children. Take a time out from your favorite issue and each one teach one. The basics.
As a teenager and young adult growing up during the '60s and '70s, I remember nationwide campus teach-ins. I also worked doing community PE (political education) as an organizer to reach young folks who didn't have the luxury to go to college.
I still remember this song.
You want "more and better Democrats"?
Then you need more and better voters. We had better teach our children.
I often read derisive comments about "typical low information voters" fed a steady diet of Fox News and American Idol. The kids I teach are not watching Fox News; they aren't watching news period.
Am I saying that there are no young people organizing or engaged in political action? No. I applaud those who are, and those organizations with whom they are engaged.
What I am saying is that we have to do more, much more, if we want to turn this country around and make change. Change does not come from the top down. It comes from the bottom up, and the next generations of voters are our "bottom."
We better not make assumptions about what young folks know.
There are probably quite a few of you who remember Schoolhouse Rock and this segment:
How many of you are aware of the updated and expanded versions on iCivicS?
Try playing some of the games yourselves (and pass them on).
iCivics: How Games Can Teach Kids to be Better Citizens:
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor spearheaded its development.
iCivics (formerly Our Courts) is a web-based education project designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in our democracy. iCivics is the vision of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is concerned that students are not getting the information and tools they need for civic participation, and that civics teachers need better materials and support.
Expanding civics into civil rights—a history we take for granted—isn't really being taught well, if at all. Sure, kids can all name Rev. Dr. MLK Jr. and Rosa Parks. But what do they really know, and how does that history they are not taught affect contemporary involvement in issues of human rights and social justice?
The Southern Poverty Law Center just issued this report:
The National Assessment of Educational Progress—commonly called “The Nation’s Report Card”—tells a dismal story: Only 2% of high school seniors in 2010 could answer a simple question about the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. And it’s no surprise. Across the country, state educational standards virtually ignore our civil rights history.
Teaching The Movement, SPLC
Teaching the Movement:The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States 2011
Generally speaking, the farther away from the South—and the smaller the African-American population—the less attention paid to the civil rights movement. Sixteen states do not require any instruction whatsoever about the movement. In another 19, coverage is minimal. In almost all states, there is tremendous room for improvement. As the nation prepared this year to dedicate a monument to its greatest civil rights champion, the Southern Poverty Law Center undertook a comprehensive review—the first of its kind—of the coverage accorded the civil rights movement in state educational standards and curriculum frameworks. This report sets out the results of that review. It provides a national report card on the state of civil rights education in our country. Most states, unfortunately, get a failing grade.
Dedicating a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall is of great symbolic importance. But if we, as a nation, are to move beyond symbolism, teaching our children about the great movement that Dr. King led is a national imperative.
The report offers more details:
Given what states expect them to be taught, it’s no surprise that American students know so little about the modern civil rights movement.2 The comprehensive review of state standards and curriculum frameworks set forth in this report reveals that the state of education about the civil rights movement is, in a word, dismal. How dismal? In this assessment of state requirements, no state received a raw higher than 70%. The scores reflect the degree to which a state’s frameworks or standards encompass the generally accepted core knowledge about the movement. A score of 100% would mean that a state requires all of that content to be taught; 50% means that half of the content is covered. Based on the scores, letter grades were assigned on a scale that recognizes the best state efforts. Only three states—Alabama, Florida, and New York—earned a grade of A.
• Sixteen states do not require any instruction at all about the movement. These states—along with 19 others whose coverage is minimal (with raw scores from 0 to 15%)—received grades of F.
• Three states—Arizona, Arkansas and Massachusetts— and the District of Columbia earned grades of D for raw scores between 20 and 30%.
• Six states, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia—earned grades of C for scores between 31 and 50%.
• Four states—Georgia, Illinois, South Carolina, and the District of Columbia—earned grades of B for scores between 50 and 60%.
• For all states, there is room for improvement.
Rather than recognizing the profound national significance of the civil rights movement, most states mistakenly see it as a regional matter, or a topic of interest mainly for black students. Nine of the 12 highest-scoring states are from the former Confederacy.4 They are joined by the states of Illinois, Maryland, and New York. Generally speaking, the farther away from the South— and the smaller the African-American population—the less attention is paid to the civil rights movement.
Imagine if children in Texas, California and Minnesota were exempted from lessons on the American Revolution— or if students in Alaska, Hawaii and Montana got a pass on the Civil War. We all recognize that the American Revolution and the Civil War are critical events in our growth as a nation, important for all students to study. It is time to recognize that the civil rights movement, too, is one of those critical events that defines us as a nation. It is a recent and important reminder of how individual self-governing Americans can act collectively to correct grave injustice. The civil rights movement is a national, not a regional, issue. It has lessons for more than just the students in the South. In the words of noted civil rights historian Taylor Branch, “If you’re trying to teach people to be citizens, teach them about the civil rights movement.”
Many get out the youth vote organizations are gearing up for 2012. Groups like Rock the Vote have education sections like "Democracy Class."
I'm suggesting that we each take responsibility for teaching one-on-one democratic civics classes. All of our futures depend on taking action. Don't sit back and wait for schools, and those of us who are paid to teach, to do it for you.
It will be too late.