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The Vital Importance of Teaching Civics

by Bill of Rights Institute on

By Daniel Helms

David Hume wrote the following in his book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748):

"Mankind is so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover human nature's constant and universal principles."

When my teaching career began nearly 20 years ago, I considered our Civics course a straightforward, cut-and-dry course.  I would teach the structure of the U.S. Constitution, how each branch of government works, and principles such as checks and balances. In the end, the students would have the academic knowledge to understand the society in which they lived. It was almost as if I were preparing them to pass the Citizenship test. I did my duty to promote civic knowledge with my students.

But civic knowledge is not the same as civic understanding. I learned that Hume was correct; the only thing that changes is the issues that human nature relates to and responds to. For example, protests are woven into the fabric of the American experience. How are protests against British taxation similar or dissimilar to Tea Party protests in 2008 or against confederate statutes or opposing police brutality?

What can we learn from the responses? How can we teach that America’s history is filled with similar arguments and complaints, and we can learn from past experiences to adopt strategies for addressing them moving forward?

My focus changed from the basic structures and concepts to understanding how the institutions handle issues in society and among the governed. Teaching civics today is more about identifying what’s important to the community and how government, organized interest groups, and individuals interact and determine the best course of action in response. It’s a course in critical thinking and analysis, understanding various perspectives, and expanding beyond one’s own thoughts while creating the best arguments for defending your views. 

And in my opinion, this will save the American democratic tradition.

Society today tells us we are polarized to the point of breaking, and we must hold firmly to our beliefs because our way of life and our views are under attack as wrong. Teachers who ask students to look at history or perspectives that go against a portion of society are accused of indoctrination by the adults in the community. Some students shy away from discussion, either out of a belief that discussing viewpoints is an exercise in futility or they are made to feel wrong for talking about them.

If left untreated, this is a condition that will only further entrench the polarization that does exist.  In my perspective, students crave the chance to discuss issues that many deem too controversial or inappropriate for school. Students today can recognize other perspectives, discuss the pros and cons, and reach agreements and compromises. Students today will be the ones to forge the next wave of American democratic traditions.  It is vital to our future that students today be prepared to take on that mantle.

Daniel Helms teaches civics at Northwest Cabarrus High School in Concord, NC, and is a member of the Bill of Rights Institute National Teacher Council.