Denny Smith
Leadership and Development Trainer

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “Our best hope is the generation coming up.” I couldn’t agree more. There is little doubt that we need to narrow the divide in America, which leaves little doubt that we need an informed and engaged younger generation. Representative Dean Urdahl is leading a campaign to make subtle and doable changes in our Social Studies curriculum that will help us achieve that goal.

As is the case in so many changes in our society, the field of education can take a leadership role in preserving our democracy by creating an educated and civil citizenry. We need it now more than ever.

We are mortified by the lack of political awareness of those interviewed on Jay Leno’s “Jay Walking” segments. Many participants couldn’t name the current Vice President. An even greater number had no idea who their Senators or Representatives were. When asked on July 4th who America declared their independence from, one said, “The United States.” When Jay reminded her that the United States declared its independence, but asked from whom we declared it, she didn’t know. Another ascertained that we got our independence from Greece. Similar answers were given to questions about our constitution.

Representative Urdahl shares some alarming statistics. A national survey indicated that only 23% of our high school graduates reach a level of proficiency in civics. The federal government spends $50 per student on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and only 5 cents per student on Social Studies curriculum. With all due respect to the STEM program and with no intention of reducing its funding, we might challenge the richest nation in the world to adequately fund Civics Education to help preserve our precious democracy?

From my observations, our Social Studies teachers do an admirable job of teaching Civics, but Representative Urdahl and others offer a suggestion that could greatly improve our outcomes. That suggestion is to move civics from 9th to 12th grade. Students in 9th grade have a lot on their minds, but civic engagement is not a high priority. Seniors are just a few months away from making their way into the world and would be much more motivated to learn about political and social justice issues than their 9th grade counterparts.  

It seems that we would not have to change what we teach but simply alter when we teach it. Our mission statements affirm our commitment to prepare graduates to be informed and productive citizens, and an understanding of how democracy works should perhaps be an integral part of that commitment.

One group of advocates suggested that we evaluate our students using a test similar to the one required of immigrants to receive citizenship. If immigrants are required to know this, perhaps it is not unfair to expect the same of our high school graduates. The advocates narrowed the test to fifty questions, all related to constitutional and civic issues, which could serve as an evaluation tool for our students. Passing the test would not be a requirement for graduation, but it could be a component of the class grade if teachers choose to make it that.

In a previous Leaders Forum, we shared the story of a little girl asking her mother why she cuts off the ends of the ham. Mom replied, “I’ve always done it that way. That’s the way my mother taught me to do it.” The girl asked the same question of her grandmother and got the same reply. So the girl went to her great-grandmother and asked why she cut off the ends of the ham. Great Grandmother replied, “Because my roaster was too short.”

Often resistance to change comes from the fact that we have always done things that way. When it comes to changes in curriculum, instead of cutting off the ends of the ham, maybe we should buy a new roaster.

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