In my previous entry, I wrote about the need to be true to who we are as a people. One of the most important ways to transmit our values in a democracy comes through civic and historical education, including the study of writing and rhetoric. In this post, I shall address the historical and civic education needs of the United States of America. Other countries, of course, will have their own laws and own history. I hope if I have international readers, they will be able to draw on these concepts even if their history and civic structure may vary. I would certainly be open to hearing thoughts about this issue in an international context.
Our history is very important to who we are as a people. If we do not have the sense of who we are as a people, we are as the proverb says “doomed to repeat” our mistakes. Similarly, without historical education, people do not have a good sense of who they are as a people and what makes their nation great.
Of course, historical standards need to be able to identify major people and events in their country’s history. In a democratic society, though, students need to have access to a fuller access to history, including a less sanitized version of history. I am not suggesting that students be exposed to age inappropriate material, but they do need to have a wide array of knowledge. For example, when students learn about the Civil Rights movement, they need to know not just about voting rights, but also about the Jim Crow laws. At some point, it’s probably important, to use an example, that they be exposed to Malcolm X as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s all a part of learning about a broader perspective of what people actually experienced and thought.
Civic education is also very important. Civic education, of course, is important because eventually students grow up to be voters and, hopefully, active citizens. Students should be able to identify their rights in the Constitution and be aware of the responsibilities they have as citizens. They should be able to identify the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) and be able to identify those that hold these offices (e.g. the President and Vice President of the United States, their United States Representative and Senators, the U.S. Supreme Court justices, their governor, those that represent them in state government, the mayor of their city). They should know how a bill becomes law and be aware of major court cases. They should be able to identify their city, state, and country and be aware of others. Finally, they must be aware of current events and be able to demonstrate skills involved in active and critical consumption of the news media.
It is also essential to civic and historical teaching that students be able to write, speak, read, and think clearly and critically. They should be able to identify points of argument and to be able to analyze those of others. These students should be able to write concise sentences and be able to organize these sentences into clear and concise paragraphs, and those paragraphs into longer works, incorporating replicable sources, and cited correctly. These works, of course, should display correct grammar and spelling.
These students should also be able to formulate their own argumentation. Instructors can assist these efforts by acting in a politically neutral fashion. The goal of critical thinking is to sharpen the student’s ability to make their own arguments, based upon evidence, not to encourage students to think in a specific way. A good instructor should, when necessary, challenge students’ positions from left, right, and moderate positions. Critical thinking is multi-dimensional in nature. Students should be able to articulate their views in a way that engages, in a meaningful way, even those who do not hold their personal viewpoints. Effective argumentation is about persuasion, not simply being able to regurgitate talking points.
Mathematical and science reasoning standards will also be very important in this. Students need to have strong backgrounds in scarcity, public health matters, environmental matters, be able to interpret and think critically about science related reporting in the news media, and to be able to both have a functional knowledge of mathematics and mathematical reasoning.
In order to keep our civic institutions strong in the future, we must be able to transmit our knowledge and values to younger generations. This knowledge is essential to the development of future citizens in a democratic society. In order to be able to function in such a society, students will need to learn skills that make them aware of their history, their civic rights and responsibilities, and to be able to read, write, and think clearly and critically.