September 25, 2014

In order to compete globally, U.S. students need math and science skills. They might also need an engineering background, and knowing a programming language or two wouldn’t hurt. Oh, and teachers should probably incorporate some humanities classes too.

Being a well-rounded student may well help you compete in the job market some day — but there's an even more basic set of knowledge that some say is being overlooked in schools.

“Every child that we have in our schools is going to grow up and be a member of our community and have civic rights and responsibilities,” says Meira Levinson, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and author of No Citizen Left Behind. “Why on earth would we not want to educate them in order to deploy those rights and responsibilities effectively and well.”

A Forgotten Subject

Civics – that relic often lumped in with home economics and cursive handwriting – is vital to developing engaged citizens, argues Levinson.

If adults’ knowledge is any indication, there’s a lot of education that needs to be done. A 2011 Annenberg survey found that while 27 percent of Americans correctly named Randy Jackson as a judge on American Idol, only 15 percent could name John Roberts as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
 
Personalizing Civics Education

Civics faded in the 1960’s, in part because research showed it didn’t have much influence on kids. However, there may be more to that story. “The research is correct that boring, relatively badly taught, relatively peripheral civics courses don’t have much of an influence on kids,” says Levinson.
 
“Well-taught civics courses, though, that actually do engage young people in learning about the importance of citizenship, how to be a citizen, how actually to make a difference about issues they care about, do seem to make a real difference.”

One main focus of the civics class of the future needs to be project-based learning. In the junior high class she taught, Levinson made sure that students picked projects and topics that interested them, and encouraged them to figure out the best solution to the issue — which usually required more than an outrage-filled letter to the mayor.

Our Rights and Responsibilities
 
It might be hard to fit civics back into a curriculum already bursting at the seems with requirements. But, Levinson maintains, creating engaged citizens is key to maintaining a functional democratic system.
 
“Everybody who is a citizen has a chance of serving on a jury, has the opportunity to make their voice heard - and try to change a law or try to change a budget allocation or lead a protest or whatever it is," she says.

"So if they are going to have those rights and those opportunities, then it is in our own interests as well in their interest, actually to give them practice with it and help them learn how to do it well and responsibly.”

Meira Levinson, Education, civics, government

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