Civics: An Essential Subject Pushed Aside

Fake news. Low voter turnout. Election fraud.  

These issues are distressingly common in American news today, and likely won’t be resolved anytime soon.  Such thorny topics can’t be easily smoothed over, especially during a time when politics have become so highly divisive and mainstream.  There is, however, a simple step we can take to ensure more positive government interaction in the future: focusing more on civics in the classroom.

anonymous ethnic tutor helping little multiracial students with task in classroom
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Civics, defined as the study of the rights and duties of citizens, provides young people with an understanding of how our government works.  From the basic concepts of a representative republic to more nuanced political ideas, this social science is important in helping people form a realistic notion of what they can do to interact with their government.

Essentially, civics provides a foundation for how people see themselves and their role in our country and society.  It’s a way to help young people grasp how they might choose to shape the larger future.

Civics in the States

Despite its importance, however, the United States places a woefully low emphasis on civics.  In 2019, only 2 in 5 American adults could name the three branches of the federal government in a survey run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center – and that was an all-time high.  

Kathleen Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Center, noted that,  “The resilience of our system of government is best protected by an informed citizenry. And civics education and attention to news increase that likelihood.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a correlation was found between those who studied civics in high school and those who scored higher on the survey.  It stands to reason that when educational time and resources are devoted toward a topic, students will understand it better and carry that knowledge into their adult lives.

Civics Under Siege

Yet many school systems are letting civics fall through the cracks.  Studies from the Brookings Institute note that more and more instructional time is directed toward the “core subjects” of reading and math, while other humanities and sciences get lower billing.  Since reading and math are the subjects most heavily tested by the state, these scores are often connected to how much funding a school receives.

teacher teaching her students
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This has unfortunately only become more common in the wake of the pandemic, as many teachers are urged to get students “caught up” after periods of learning loss.  (See more about pre- and post-pandemic trends in our in-depth article here.) When faced with the pressure of making up for months and even yearslong gaps in content, it’s no wonder many struggle to find time for subjects like civics.

Including Civics for Kids

Ultimately, though, we do our students a disservice when we don’t teach them about their government.  Though many consider civics a higher-level subject, it can easily be adapted for younger grade levels to help them begin understanding and engaging with key concepts.

There are many ways teachers can include civics in the classroom.  From simple elections to more complex social projects, introducing civics ideas early can help students see themselves as part of an important system.

Giving Students a Voice

For example, students as young as first grade can begin voting on ideas for their classroom and school.  Some popular children’s shows like “Daniel Tiger” even have episodes centered around the importance of voting, which can be a great way to introduce the topic.  Educational website Edutopia also suggests allowing kids to discuss what they believe, even on topics as simple as “Should kids be allowed to sit where they want at lunch?”

Speeches help kids become more comfortable speaking for what they believe.

Giving students a topic to explore helps them delve into what they think is fair and why.  Kids can discuss and debate with one another as they take a stance on an issue.  Their opinions can even be turned into speeches, giving students the chance to practice speaking out for what they want to see happen around them.  

Student-Run Elections

Participating in student-run elections is a valuable experience.

Providing a number of roles (as opposed to just having two or three kids “in the running”) also helps students grasp how complex an election really is.  Having reporters also allows students to see and check for bias in the information they receive about candidates.  Even on a small scale, this experience helps lay the groundwork for being informed and involved citizens later in life.

Class and schoolwide elections are another great opportunity for bringing civics to life.  Edutopia experts suggest allowing all students to have a role, whether as a debate moderator, reporter, campaign assessor, or candidate, to keep things balanced and “prevent [elections] from becoming a popularity contest among students.”  This also helps instill the notion that leaders shouldn’t be elected just for their looks or social media following, but for what they hope to accomplish.

Social and Community Projects

For slightly older students, engaging in community projects is also a valuable way to incorporate civics into the classroom.  Reading and writing skills can be applied as students research topics, write letters, and raise awareness for issues that concern them.  When students are personally invested, their engagement – and therefore, their quality of work – usually increases, too.

A food drive is a great way to raise civic awareness.

Community projects are a great way for students to collaborate with one another.  Several classes can even work together to advocate for changes they wish to see, whether it’s cleaning up a local park, raising money for an animal shelter, or collecting food for a homeless shelter or charity.  These projects help students connect their beliefs and actions to real-world changes, creating a positive cycle of participation that continues as they get older.

Creating Caring Citizens

It’s not easy to carve out time for civics in the classroom, especially at the younger grade levels when it’s not explicitly part of the curriculum.  Time constraints, lack of resources, and the constant pressure to “make up for lost time” all make civics-centered education harder than ever.

Yet when civics is taught from a young age in an engaging and inspiring manner, it paves the way for young people to care about their society and have compassion for their community.

That’s always worth the effort.

Did you learn about civics at the elementary school level?  How important do you think this subject is for our young people today?  We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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