Regular readers of my posts know that the role of civics was an important point of contention raised at the recent annual conference of the New York State Council for the Social Studies. Such readers also know I have consistently advocated on behalf of local history both for the pedagogy of teaching critical skills beginning with one’s own backyard to the civic benefit of developing a sense of place, a sense of belonging, and a sense of community. Those concerns affect not only an individual’s sense of identity with the immediate area where one lives but also with the country as a whole where one is a citizen.
The disconnect between citizens and the country is palpable in New York. As previously addressed, metropolitan New York has a limited sense of connection to the French and Indian War, the American Revolution (except for the fireworks), the War of 1812, and the Civil War. One of these is celebrated annually and the other three have had or now have significant anniversaries which New York tends to overlook. By contrast upstate New York where more people have a biological connection to people who participated in these events (like the South and the Civil War), the historical ties are stronger.
This disconnect carries over into civics as well. In 2011, former Supreme Court justice Sandra day O’Connor founded the non-profit icivics.org to promote civic knowledge among students. Tests of 4th grade and 8th grade students showed dismal results. Charles N. Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education stated “The results confirm an alarming and continuing trend that civics in America is in decline.” According to NYT reporter Sam Dillon writing on this subject, “The results showed that a smaller proportion of fourth and eighth graders demonstrated proficiency in civics than in any other subject the federal government has tested since 2005, except history, American students’ worst subject” (emphasis added).
At a panel at “The Teaching of Constitutional History in the 21st-century University” held in February, 2012, at the University of Oklahoma, Pulitzer-prize winning historian David McCullough said, “The U.S. needs leaders and teachers who can make the Constitution relevant to students of all ages and backgrounds.” Host David L. Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma and former governor and U.S. senator, said only 8 percent of colleges and universities, public and private, in the U.S. require a single course in American history or government to receive a diploma. That simply continues the trend from k-12 according to Kyle Harper, director of the OU Institute for American Constitutional Heritage, who said some students get all the way to college and have very little knowledge about the Constitution.
Leading civics activist and former high school music teacher, New-York-born Richard Dreyfus, created The Dreyfuss Initiative “To teach our kids how to run our country, before they are called upon to run our country.” The consequences of failure are catastrophic. In an op-ed piece on May 13, 2012, Thomas Friedman bemoaned the market economy intrusion into the school whereby schools sell naming rights to corporate sponsors just like professional sports stadiums and school buses carry ads like NASCAR vehicles. Citing a new book by Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy, Friedman reports Sandel’s argument that “market values are crowding out civic practices. When public schools are plastered with commercial advertising, they teach students to be consumers rather than citizens.”
What then can we do? Specifically, what can we do in New York? What can we do through the social studies curriculum that will connect students to their American, state, and local past and prepare them to be citizens who will write the next chapter in our history? Since civics and local history are not priorities in the Common Core Curriculum at present, this vaunted wave of the future will not resolve these problems of the present and may lead to further dissolution of the fabric of society in an increasingly diverse population of many newcomers who have no relation to the founders of this country, the documents they created which constitute us, and to the community in which they live. That does not bode well for the country.
In my previous post, I said democracy was a hands-on sport which requires practice before one is ready for the show, the major leagues of being an adult human being in a democratic society. Towards that end, I suggested some specific actions:
Grade 4: students receive from the Mayor a certificate of community and a municipal passport identifying the historic places in the community up through the 21st century
Grade 7: students meet in the city/town/village hall for a mock council meeting
Grade 8: students meet in the county legislature chamber for a mock meeting
To continue this process:
Grade 11: high school juniors meet in the chambers of the state capitol for a mock meeting. Since this space is rarely if ever used on a Friday or weekend, there is ample opportunity for sessions with 150 student legislators and 63 student senators of students from around the state. How many students compete in the state basketball tournament? It’s time to give civic athletes the same opportunity. Let’s combine the visit with a tour of the state capitol and some talks by real political leaders or professors/scholars of state politics.
Grade 12: high school seniors meet in the chambers of the House of Representatives as they used to do in Convention II, the high school program started by my father, Bob Feinman, after the Bicentennial. The space is almost always empty even when Congress is in session. Let’s let high school students participate in the Civic Superbowl as part of their training in becoming adult citizens in a democratic society. Why shouldn’t civic superstars be recruited just as colleges recruit athletes? Our Senators and Representatives can make this happen just as they did when my father created Convention II.
One last item. Besides the need to teach American history through local history, I have advocated county history conferences. These conferences are designed to bring together all the history constituencies in the county in a single place with a welcome by the county executive. As part of the program, I have recommended teacher presentations on teaching local history. There also should be an award ceremony for high school students who have completed a term project using local history. I have arranged with Diane Janowski, Publisher, New York History Review, for separate web pages to be created for each county on the Review’s website. The award winners will have the honor of having their paper posted on New York History Review website upon submission by the county historian. Over time, the website will serve as a repository for papers about the history of the county and will enable links to be developed for common themes across the state. If there are colleges willing to host regional history conferences, the likelihood is that regional webpages could be created for undergraduates. (There are no plans for peer-reviewed postings for graduate students, professors, or independent scholars at this time.)
Piecemeal efforts just don’t cut it- the stakes are too high. Sticking our heads in the ground won’t work either. Despite the shortcomings of the Common Core Curriculum it at least puts the issue of the social studies curriculum front and center. If the leaderless history community wh
ich is fractured into multiple statewide organizations that don’t talk to each other can’t get its act together now, then we will have squandered the opportunity of crisis and pay the price for our failure or years to come. There is an alternative to continuing to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result, Einstein’s definition of insanity. Change the paradigm. Seize the moment. Make it so.
Peter Feinman founder and president of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, a non-profit organization which provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development program for teachers, public programs including leading Historyhostels and Teacherhostels to the historic sites in the state, promotes county history conferences and the more effective use of New York State Heritage Weekend and the Ramble.