Between the Lines: Why Civic Education Matters

October 02, 2014

I was listening to a back-to-school guest speaker talk about bullying in schools. I was shocked how to hear that bullying has become an epidemic for American students. The guest speaker suggested that research reveals the majority of American students have felt bullied at some point during their K-12 experience. With these statistics, it makes sense how leaders (both inside the educational world and from other occupations), feel the need to focus time, money, and efforts on recognizing the warning signs to help prevent or rehabilitate bullying behavior.

In listening to these comments, the root cause for these problems seems very clear to me. Over the last decade of U.S. Presidencies, we have become a nation so conscientious about our world rankings in math, science, and reading that we have neglected the importance of civics education. Consequently, this translates to teaching staff structures throughout the U.S. with such a heavy emphasis on what are considered to be core subjects, (math, science, reading) students are directed to complete graduation requirements that do not produce a complete educational curriculum balance. Balance must be stressed when dealing with student curriculum.

Without civics, there is no teaching of the melting pot theory, no understanding of the civil rights movement, no realization of how or why a revolution occurs. Students would likely never read about John Locke, Karl Marx, or Henry Ford. Sure, key historical figures would still be covered like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but what about the bad guys like Hitler, or David Duke? Civics equips us with how to be successful by remembering the atrocities from the past, not just by emulating successful people.

Consider the leadership of former president, JFK. Two of his most famous quotes are often repeated and remembered. In one speech given at Rice University, he set a mathematical and scientific goal for the U.S. to put a man on the moon stating, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” In another speech, Kennedy began his presidential career with an inauguration address that captivated citizenship and the essence of civic duty during the height of the Cold War: “And so my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” With balance we become better overall. With neglect to civic education we become focused on formulas and numbers.

Regardless of whether we’re discussing world rankings in education or bullying among K-12 students, we will not reach our full potential as a society until we shift back to a focus on a balanced education, rather than the stated “core” topics.  As a social studies instructor, my hope is that our history will not become just a biographical flashcard, or a generalized overview of famous names, places, and holidays. Unfortunately, that seems to be the path that civics education could be headed due to the heavy emphasis on math, science, and reading. When we were in the Cold War, balance in education was important. However, since the end of the Cold War, the importance of civics has been neglected.

So, ‘Why is civics education critical?’ We have too much to lose if the focus remains on only math, science and reading. Consider the opportunities that will be lost to teach students how to handle frustration and other emotions that are caused by disagreement during a guided class discussion. Think about the supervision and leadership that will not be leveraged by a professional civics educator on these topics. However, as the focus continues to remain on “core” subjects, recent legislation is only slicing the social science departments and diluting the interest of the next generation. Reading, science and math are critically important; they got us to the moon. However, please remember that civics was the reason we went.



Jerry Prina

Jerry Prina (@ehsgirlsbball) is a sophomore government teacher from Eureka, Illinois. He believes that classroom games are the best way to excite, frustrate, and motivate teenagers to learn.