Can't We Afford to Teach Civics Any Longer? Can We Afford Not to?

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Academy Award winner Richard Dreyfuss has appeared in nearly 100 movies and numerous plays. A Senior Associate Member of St. Antony's College, University of Oxford, he has devoted most of the last six years to the study of civics. For many years he served on the Board of Trustees of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Recently, he has helped the Civil War Preservation Trust draw attention to the commercial encroachment of historic battlefields. In 2008 he sponsored a civics conference in London. His website, The Dreyfuss Initiative, is committed to teaching "our kids how to run our country with common sense." Mr. Dreyfuss is a member of the Advisory Board of Vote iQ .

"An American government exam taken by all high school students in Maryland would be eliminated next year under the proposed state budget, a surprising shift in policy that comes just three years after the test was made a graduation requirement. Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal cuts $1.9 million from the Maryland State Department of Education budget that would pay for the test and its grading. ... Some educators expressed immediate concern that social studies would get less attention in high schools if the test is eliminated."-- Baltimore Sun

Outside the front door of my house is a hundred year old Uncle Sam. He's made of wood, and as long as he's been with us he's not had any work done on him. After reading about Maryland's intention to do away with its civics test I am making arrangements for a visit to a rehab, after an emotionally charged intervention that had Uncle Sam thin lipped with rage and denial, while the wood and paint that covered him looked so uncared for and chipped, that we've stopped waving hello, not wanting to risk some outburst of irrational anger that would make his always wooden features peel and flake even more.

He' s definitely ill, and looks like he's on something. You can't reach him anymore, and it breaks my heart because he's been with me for so long, and has been so peppy and happy until these last few years. I don't know what he's taking. It's some kind of drug---oh, I don't have any idea. All I know is that he hasn't said a simple kind thing, or taken care of his appearance, and having had some history with both Sam and bad behavior, I feel desolate that he doesn't see how damaging his behavior is. But seriously: Eliminating civics?

Of course I could tell you a million stories about how wonderful he's been, but I have to say it's harder to recall given the events through which we are living. I'm tired; I'm tired and sick of trying to get him to grow up, or be a little more honest with himself, but this latest nonsense, taking away the one thing that could help him recover his self-esteem, it's getting to me.

I'm a kiss the tarmac type, but not lately. I hear him muttering about how exceptional he is, but when I say like when, Sam? he just goes into a meltdown.

At our house we've got two Betty Boop waitresses made out of plastic. They don't talk to Sam any more.

It's more than sad; its terrifying. Horrible. Watching this noble character, with such a noble past, reduced to this excuse-making fake, and then stopping the only therapy that can heal him--civics--what does he expect to happen, that we're just going to wake up and love him again and forget all the offensive behavior that he then denies? Hanging with a bad bunch---no I'm going to say it--they're a bad bunch, and they've led him down the wrong road.

Fighting and sneering at everyone, sullen and muttering to himself, cutting himself off from anything like exercise or thoughtfulness, or thinking clearly--how does he expect to think clearly when he stops learning how to be Uncle Sam, in control and knowing right from wrong. For a long time I've made excuses for him, that he was being taken advantage of, that he'd been victimized, but no more. He's just as responsible for his childishness and self-imposed stupidity.

Eliminate civics? Can you imagine the sick, tortured, self-loathing that must have led to this decision? What does he think, that he's just going to know what's right without being taught anything? Really? Like getting an honest mortgage? Like avoiding getting his home foreclosed by crooks who don't fear getting punished? Like whining about how poor he is while guzzling all that rotgut? He's so poor, he pays sooo much in taxes, that's why his infrastructure is rotting. Yeah, Poor Uncle Sam.

I used to love seeing him standing on the porch so upright and strong and principled. Now he looks like a throw-away cheapsuit put together by con artists and phony contractors. I don't know what I'm going to tell my kids.



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kenneth j bernstein - 3/30/2011

I teach Government in a Maryland High School. I have 6 sections, three of which are Advanced Placement US Government & Politics, three of Local, State and National Government. The test in question is one for which all of my students sit.

I'm glad to see it go. It is flawed, unbalanced, and has almost nothing to do with civics. There have been years when the test asked the same question 3 different ways. It erroneously wants to students to believe that Brown v Board totally overturned Plessy v Ferguson (it did not, although the Warren opinion telegraphed its intention of doing so in the future, but did not in this case). Some questions have no correct answer, some have more than one correct answer.

Last year the test became all multiple choice - the current terminology is "selected response." There is no penalty for a wrong answer. I have had students who failed all four quarters of my course who passed the state test.

And oh by the way, even though it is a graduation requirement, you do not have to pass the test to graduate.

Absent the test and the preparation for it with quarterly benchmarks (called inaccurately "formative assessments" instead of focusing on having students learn facts for purposes of passing the test, I can get them involved in simutations, in real world applications of what they are learning and thereby better prepare them to be participating citizens in our liberal democracy - and before Conservatives have a cow, that is a technical political science term that has nothing to do with political orientation.

I for one am happy to see the test go. It was never included in the calculation of the misnamed Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind anyway. It serve no meaningful purpose except as an extra hurdle in moving towards high school graduation.


Jim Cullen - 3/30/2011

Anyone with a further interest in this subject can see how one teacher has grappled with trying to provide a robust 21st century version of civics:

http://www.common-place.org/vol-08/no-03/school/