National News

In the Age of Trump, Civics Courses Make a Comeback

Posted June 5, 2018 11:15 p.m. EDT

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — It’s just after 7 on a Thursday morning, and Mamaroneck High School is empty — except for about 30 freshmen who are already seated in their classroom, laptops in front of them.

They are finishing the first year of a new initiative: a four-year program called Original Civic Research and Action, which requires them to immerse themselves in the workings of their town of Mamaroneck — just north of New York City — and find a useful solution to an ongoing problem.

The project — for which students get no school credit in the first year — is the brainchild of Joseph Liberti, a longtime government and history teacher at the high school.

And it is emblematic of a renewed nationwide effort to address, at both the high school and college level, issues that have been laid bare over the past few years — a lack of understanding of and trust in most civic institutions, a disconnection from government at all levels and intolerance for those who think and act differently.

Although he had been pondering such a program for years — modeled on similar ones the school had in drama and science — the election of President Donald Trump gave it a new urgency and “launching it became much easier in 2016,” Liberti said. “The energy was there, and I was able to ride that wave.”

He expected 12 students to sign up. He ended up with 32.

Only nine states and the District of Columbia require a full year of civics education, according to the Center for American Progress; 30 states mandate a half-year, and 11 states have no mandates. Only one state, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, require community service and civics courses before a student graduates.

The reasons are varied, but many say the increased focus on science and mathematics, as well as standardized tests, has squeezed out time that once would have been devoted to such courses.

And tests results and surveys show that students’ — and most Americans’ — knowledge of their history and the structure of their government is abysmal. Scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress state that in 2014, only 18 percent of eighth-graders scored “at” or “above proficient” in American history and 23 percent scored “at” or “above proficient” in civics.

A survey last year by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that 37 percent of those surveyed couldn’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment and about 75 percent don’t know all three branches of government.

For years, a number of organizations have promoted teaching civics, such as the Center for Civic Education, which provides curriculums and holds annual competitions for upper elementary and middle-school students; iCivics, a nonprofit civics education group started by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor; and the Civics Education Initiative, which lobbies states to require students to pass a civics test before graduating.

But more needs to be done, especially in light of the divided state of the country, many say, and individuals and institutions are taking on the challenge. One example is Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago, whose students last year led a campaign to address gun violence in their community; as part of that they studied the Constitution and the Second Amendment and worked with legislators, police, activists and gang members.

“This is not just about a high school civics class. It’s not to prepare students for tests, but to prepare them to be active, contributing citizens,” said Ron Berger, chief academic officer of EL Education, a nonprofit network of about 160 public and charter school nationwide. “We’ve forgotten about that as a nation.”

Polaris is one of EL Education’s schools.

Including civics education and engagement means “that when they go to college, the kids are used to being in a deep dialogue — they’re not going in with the idea that there’s one right answer,” he added. “They learn to negotiate and hear different perspectives.”

And hearing different perspectives is something that’s sorely lacking across the country.

Jacobi Kandel, 14, who is taking the Mamaroneck High School class, said that after the 2016 presidential election, she realized how little she understood about the rest of the country.

“This town is liberal, and I thought that was the way of the world,” she said. “I totally thought Hillary was going to be the first female president. Then I woke up and said, ‘What’s going on?'”

For those teaching civics and civic engagement, the goal isn’t to get students to finish one project, but to make community involvement a habit — and one type of action often does lead to another. David Hogg, a survivor of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and one of the most active student voices calling for stronger gun laws, is now focused on registering students to vote.

Hogg, who said he was not politically active before the shooting, helped organize a May 29 voter registration drive in about 1,000 schools in 46 states; he coordinated the effort with HeadCount, a national nonprofit that registers voters, primarily at music festivals and concerts.

Registering students to vote isn’t easy, he said. “There’s a complacency, and it’s hard to get anyone engaged in anything that doesn’t affect them.” Less than half of 18-24-year olds nationwide voted in the 2016 presidential election, the poorest turnout of any age group.

But moving the needle on that complacency is what civics and civic engagement is all about, Liberti said. “The goal is not just to produce informed citizens, but citizens who know how to make change.”