Civics Education: Can Teachers Pass the Baton and Save Democracy?

One of the wonders of New York City is the New York Historical Society, a museum, a library and the host of dozens of presentations by the nation’s leading historians, researchers and thought leaders. I attend the sessions that suit my tastes. Earlier in the week I listened to Richard Haas, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and Yascha Mounk, a professor at John Hopkins discuss the State of Global Democratic Order – democracy or autocracy. Towards the end of the talk Hass bemoaned the lack of civics education in schools and I informed him of the required high school course, he graciously replied he would check out the course

New York State requires a one-term high school course: Participation in Government.   You can review the course outline, the Social Studies Framework, 9-12, beginning on pp 45 here.  The Frameworks also encourage teachers to “select flexibly from current events,” and, I was thinking, how would I present the course right now?

Content specifications are not included, so that the course can adapt to present local, national, and global circumstances, allowing teachers to select flexibly from current events to illuminate key ideas and conceptual understandings.

As you become more confident in your skills as a teacher you realize teaching is a two-way street; teaching is inextricably connected to learning: you can’t change the output without changing the input. Linking a lesson or a unit to an event in the news is what experience teaches us as teachers.

I would ask the class,

Is violent crime rising and how do we know it?

If it is rising, why is it rising?

If crime is rising, how can we stem the rise?

A couple of days, or weeks of intense discussion, kids working in teams, finding unbiased research tools, public perceptions, the impact of public perceptions on elections: a rich panoply of lessons.

I would begin by asking,

Where you get your news?  Newspapers, TV, the Internet, other people ….  Are newspapers and websites unbiased? What’s the difference between bias and unbiased?  What’s the difference between a primary and a secondary source?

Let’s check out a primary source,

What can we learn from Comstat data?   See Citywide here and your own police precinct here.

For thirty years crime was declining in New York City and since the pandemic rising sharply, why did crime decline (Read here) and why is crime increasing?

Check out the theories here, and here , what do the experts propose?

Let’s divide the class into teams, we’ve identified five or six strategies to reduce crime, take a deep dive into the strategy, pros and cons, and explain your findings in an essay, with links to your sources.

How about we send our findings to Mayor Adams and we invite him to attend our class and discuss our report with him?

Civics can be dry and boring to a teenager.  Just before the pandemic I hosted a meeting of local principals and a leadership class from a high school. The presenter was from the Census and explained how the results can impact all our lives.  One of the high school students looked, to be polite, disengaged.

A cold call: I asked her why she didn’t seem to care, she replied, “Rich White people run everything, no one cares about us.”

Me: “You should run for office.”

Her: “I’m not rich”

In New York City the lowest rung on the election ladder is district leader you only need 25 signatures to get on the ballot and you do get to attend and vote to fill local vacancies on the ballot

Other students: “Yah, run, I’ll vote for you, you’re always criticizing everyone”

I sent her teacher the paperwork, schools closed the following week, the move to all-remote schools.

Many college campuses have New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) chapters; the college chapters actively lobby the City Council and State legislature.

Our role as teachers is to engage our students, give them a voice, and convince them that their voice matters. I call it “passing the baton,” each generation has an obligation to engage the next generation.   If we fail the democracy versus autocracy issue, the question will be decided without us.

One thought on “Civics Education: Can Teachers Pass the Baton and Save Democracy?

  1. Despite your best efforts, and they were most certainly creative and effective, it is difficult to teach students about democracy in schools that represent some of the most autocratic institutions in society. It simply becomes another instance of do what I say not what I do.

    In the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection to overturn the 2020 election, we must transform our school communities into paradigms of participatory decision making. In addition to meaningfully involving teachers and parents in school governance, we need to shift the locus of control for learning to our students as you did in your lessons.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: