Many of us are not good citizens, as much as we think we may be.
The symptoms are everywhere. Only 19% of New Yorkers volunteer for any community service in a given year. Voter turnout is incredibly low, with the Empire state coming in at 30th nationally in 2020 and 39th four years prior. You need to spend only a few minutes on social media or watching the news to see vitriol and lack of compassion and understanding for differing views, from citizens and so-called leaders alike. And, there is vast press illiteracy – many of us don’t consume or properly consume news and are misled by sources passing them off as such.
It’s a mess, and no wonder why we are failing people who need even the most basic services, communities seem less connected than they used to be, governments and corporatists run amok, and politicians purposely and successfully sow hateful division that has defined discourse and relationships in this country while ensuring their incumbency and control.
We’re held back as individuals and as a collective people because we have limited understanding of government, community, and our roles in the public sphere.
As a society we haven’t spent enough time building the necessary knowledge base and the corresponding foundation of understanding and action.
Proper civics really aren’t standard dinner table conversation for most families, so it’s mostly been up to others to instill well-rounded citizenship upon young people, be it a youth group or school. The former have seen declining participation rates in recent decades while the latter has seen a devaluation of civics in the classroom.
The dearth of civics opportunities is quite pronounced in public schools. Preparing kids for the great big world before them has seen an emphasis placed on the usual suspects – science, math, English – while Regents tests and diplomas, as well as other standardized state and national testing, have reinforced that. When you add the dalliances with modern feel-good topics like bullying or social equity there’s little time left in the school calendar to focus on civics. Even if you go back in time to when this writer was in high school, the Participation in Government class was half a school year. Five months of a once-a-week class was our sole exposure to citizenship for our whole school career.
Because of the ongoing collapse of good citizenship, much of which can be attributed to the actions of the organization and its definition of what constitutes learning, the Board of Regents was charged a few years ago with improving civics education.
A 33-member panel was convened in 2018 and 2019 that developed something called “the seal of civic readiness” which will be offered in the 2022-2023 school year if the pilot program being rolled out at 111 schools statewide this fall is successful (the districts within the readership of my column that are participating this school year are Niagara Falls, Elba, and Holley).
The Regents’ goal will be accomplished through a 4 +1 pathway, meaning the student can complete 4 required Regents exams/tracks and use the civics courses and work to supplant the fifth and standard course, just as someone in career ed might do.
The civics pathway will impress upon students four distinct criteria: knowledge (government, law, current events, and history); skills and action (demonstration of critical analytic, verbal, communication, media literacy, and other skills); mindsets (an understanding of self as part of and responsible to larger social groups while balancing the common good with individual liberties); and experiences (participation in developmentally appropriate civic experiences inside and outside the classroom).
The last point is a culmination of all the others, and shows what was learned as an actionable item. The state has suggested that it could come in various forms such as participating in civic-centered co-curricular and extracurricular activities such as Model UN, Student Government, and Debate Club or volunteering in community organizations and governmental systems, such as community boards and youth advisory councils. The Board of Regents also emphasizes, as a requirement to the above, a capstone project that has the student identify an issue facing them, their school, or community while evaluating solutions and potentially the execution thereof and then taking informed action to address the situation.
At the outset, this looks like an incredible program and an excellent means by which to turnaround decades of civics malaise. I look forward to seeing how this pans out at the experimental level and how it can be implemented in my and neighboring schools. The payoff years down the road could be immensely positive.
There will be some naysayers, saying we shouldn’t have government educating people how to deal with the government. But such sentiment speaks to why the civics courses are necessary: We are the government.
As individuals, as organizations, we can -- and should make it a point to -- be involved with the development of this program in our districts while also offering our insight to the participating students and challenging them to address specific needs within our communities and the world.
It’s up to us to put the seal of approval on the seal of civic readiness, and change tomorrow through today.
From the 09 August 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News