Guest Opinion: Post Truth? Post Trust? Why Students Really Need a Civics Education

Guest Opinion: Post Truth? Post Trust? Why Students Really Need a Civics Education

By Susan Ellenberg


The emphasis on core academics has seen a steady increase over the past number of years, but a discipline that has disappeared nearly entirely from our students’ curriculum is one that emphasizes an understanding of citizenry: how government works at each level and why engagement with the political process is critical. Students (as well as the rest of us) need to understand what social and economic interests are addressed by different levels of government and the implications of a lack of engagement. Related valuable skills include the ability to distinguish fact from opinion, determine the validity of sources, and engage in civil dialogue with those who hold opposing views.

Pundits claim that we have moved to a “post truth” era. Of course, there can be no such thing. Truth simply IS. I think we are in a “post trust” era where it is acceptable to dismiss facts simply by asserting that one doesn’t believe them. Without a doubt, a curious individual can be hard pressed to find truth. Much of the “news” on traditional and social media has a clear bias and creates a narrative in line with a particular predetermined worldview.

The link between digital literacy and citizenship is strong. Therefore, it is crucial that students learn to think critically. In order to do that, they must have a lens through which to analyze information they read: they must have a strong understanding of how government works and they must understand the duties and responsibilities of citizenship* with regard to each other and to the government that is supposed to represent them.

How can we accomplish this? School districts might consider any of the following options to promote civic engagement and digital literacy.

1. Highlight the role of government at every grade level through social studies and history classes.
2. Teach critical analysis as an interdisciplinary skill within every area of study.
3. Focus student government and leadership classes on a civics curriculum as part of the work they do in school leadership.
4. Incorporate digital literacy across subject disciplines.
5. Award “community service” credits for participation in internships in government offices.
6. Offer elective credits for participation and completion of a summer civics program.
7. Expand opportunities for student participation in programs such as Mock Trial, Speech & Debate and Model United Nations.
8. Ensure that student government organizations are empowered to make impactful decisions.
9. Focus on the development of empathy as the cornerstone to civil, respectful conversation.

The experience of the 2016 election, not just the result, but the lack of meaningful conversation and factual accountability, as well as the very low voter turnout and lack of understanding of the implications of not voting, should galvanize us to work for meaningful change in this arena, both within school districts and across the broader community. Our future depends on this.

Susan Ellenberg is the Vice President of the San Jose Unified School District Board of Trustees and a candidate for Santa Clara County Supervisor, District 4. Her views do not necessarily express those of SJUSD.

*By which in this context I do not mean citizenship as the formal, legal description of status, but as an engaged member of a community.



  1. I was intrigued by the last ranking and my comment that requested the 411 on Rocha and Ellenberg. The only thing I got was that Ellenberg consultants worked for Chevron and did a poor job. I did look her up and found a couple op pieces she’s written for the Merc and her Facebook both her campaign and trustee where I found she also has a blog and has been doing this for some time. Also that yes she was an attorney and teacher of social studies but isn’t one anymore from what I can tell. I’m not familiar with the gritty details of campaign funds that many here seem to be pretty knowledgeable in, but she doesn’t seem like she is bought and paid for. I think it’s too early to pick one candidate over all the others but I’m still partial to Rocha and Ellenberg and maybr Baker since I’m not familiar with their negatives like I am Caserta and Pieri.

  2. I do feel Ellenberg is an educator. I believe she has a proven record as an educator. This is a curious turn of events. First, Cunneen notifies this site he is backing Ellenberg. Then Ellenberg gets a spot to write a good government piece. Ellenberg’s consultants, Whitehurst and Mosher, funded websites for Chevron using the same technique. Coincidence?

  3. I learned a lot from reading this. Thank you Susan Ellenberg. You may not be a teacher. But I wish you were. In fact, I wish you were our teacher. This is the most intelligent thing we’ve seen all semester.

  4. As an educator, I believe that not everybody needs to be a teacher to influence education policy. In fact, much richness can come from a healthy mix of both professionals in any field and non professionals. Although Susan is not an educator currently, she has spent many years in the classroom teaching innovative social justice programs that led to students making a real difference and developing a social justice mindset, which is sorely needed these days.

  5. I’m surprised to see that the comment thread following Susan’s thoughtful comment about civic engagement has devolved into a back and forth about who’s the better candidate. The issues Susan raises are real. It doesn’t really matter which candidate has been paid to be a teacher; what matters is the way our candidates are addressing the issues that, in turn, matter to us. Here, Susan is talking about the necessity that children discover a role for themselves as participants in a civil society: we, as adults, need to raise a next generation who will participate at every level of their society.

    My brother-in-law, who teaches at a university in Florida, asked his students, immediately following the presidential election, to raise their hands if they voted. About 25% of the students raised their hands. This number just shows us how much work we have to do, from elementary school forward, to prepare students to be involved in the civic process now, so that when they’re adults, they’ll vote; they’ll participate.

    I am a high school English teacher in San Jose, and I can attest to what Susan speaks of: our students will learn how vital THEY ARE to the society they live in when they learn about how government works–from the city and county level, through to the national level; when they learn how legislatures work, and how courts work, and what the roles of each branch of government are; when they go to Sacramento in the 4th grade and tour the Capitol; when they learn about the electoral college; when they read the constitution. All of this learning and so much more is vital for our children and our future voters to understand their own role as citizens who make decisions that matter.

    Please, let me encourage all of us to pay attention, in our own voting process, to what the candidates say matters to them—what issues they hope to work on, for the benefit of our children and for a society that offers justice to all. As a teacher of some 30 years, let me remind all of us, as voters, that it’s our job as citizens to understand the issues, and to vote according to our awareness and our conscience.

    • I read this material and I am impressed. I am happy children in San Jose have such a board member. But has not Dominic Caserta done these things with his students as well. The pettiness of the editor of this blog contributed to public apathy. I told my friends in Santa Clara not to support Measure J because it has been a devil’s bargain. But the devil has infected the minds of both sides. A teacher is a unique and I regard Me. Ellenberg as an educator, but some of these people hate for the fun of hating.

    • People have a right to their opinions.
      You should read the letters in other media outlets … Pretty sure the mercury and SJ Inside have had negative comments and letters. Actually, I’m 100 percent sure they have comments that are not of substance – or of truth. That is the beauty of opinions and free speech.

      Caserta has An open offer to contribute a guest column on education, civics or local matters. The irony, is I actually really respect his past ideals that we need to keep vocational programs in public education. I believe he even penned an editorial in a local publication on the topic.

      No one in this guest opinion is stating that Caserta has not done these things. It’s obvious from the comments here, that Dominic has many supporters, as well as detractors – just as many politicians and elected officials have.

      I believe in engaging the public. It’s well-known there are currently two very different opinions/views on topics in the mission city. Thoughtful discussion leads to changes that better the community.

  6. I strongly believe that Jason, Susan, Piere Luigi and Don are fine public servants. Whichever of us win this race, will serve Santa Clara County well! We are all loving mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, and neighbors who want to make our community a better place to live. As public servants, we deserve and expect criticism about our public record. That is what a healthy, vibrant democracy is all about.

    But, Robert what you creating is not virtuous. Allowing such libelous statements on any and all of us to go through your moderation process is disgusting and should have no space in the public discourse. Simply stated, it is Bullying on steriods. It truly is a poor reflection on you! No wonder so many great people do not go into public service.

    Robert, you had an amazing opportunity to be an outlet of precious information for your readers, creating . Sadly, it has become a haven for hatred, libelous statements, and unchecked opinion guised as facts.

    Shame on you, Robert!


    • Good for you, Dominic for being above the fray. You said something well about every candidate

    • What impressed about Ellenberg she does strive for a better way. I think Baker, Oliverio, Rocha and Caserta do as well. The editor replied here with the same attitude as a liquor store owner who sells pints to winos, “they are free to drink.” Mr Rocha, Ms. Ellenberg, Caserta, and Jason seem to be active in working for the community. I see their contributions, but as they saw, it is easy to sit in the audience and be a critic.

  7. he consistently votes for high-density housing and the 49ers because I believe that probably pads his nest.

    Wow, Dominic is a teacher… Not very unique since there’s thousands in the county.

    Dominic’s voting record speaks for itself. Bye bye Dominic. Santa Clara County deserves better.

    • I believe every single candidate who is on a city council voted for big developments. Ellenberg has not because she is on a school board. But her contributions are from developers, her treasurer works for a consultant of the 49ers, and she is a teacher. I actually think all teachers are unique.

  8. Teachers are uniting behind Ellenberg — the ONLY candidate with commitment to education and INTEGRITY.

  9. No comparison between Ellenberg and Caserta.

    Ellenberg graduated from an Ivy League law school and has stellar record on SJUSD board. Caserta was a mediocre college student and is a mediocre teacher and councilor.

    • Are you serious? Caserta graduated Magna Cum Laude from SCU, went to the Kennedy School of Governent, was awarded the prestigious James Madison Memorial Fellowship awarded to just three teachers in the whole state of California, and a multiple Teacher of the Year Award winner. Pls Susan stop your pettiness and lies.

      Plus Caserta doesn’t have a voting record taking money from public school students like you! Caserta was solely endorsed by the CTA in his previous race for Assembly and will get the most votes from teacher groups and evidenced by his strong support from labor, how much money did labor give Susan nada!!! Susan doesn’t have a prayer getting teachers nor labor support! And she is nit an educator!

    • Hmm, I believe Susan Ellenberg’s job is Senior Community Development Director for the Silicon Valley Organization=San Jose Chamber.

      last filing for Chamber’s political committee, Ellenberg works with, 4,000 from SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

      Gee, with all this space for a 49er affiliate

  10. This is one of the more thoughtful writings I’ve read from a candidate. I will definitely consider Susan for my vote.

  11. Agreed Susan that is why I am supporting Dominic for Supervisor. He is the only candidate who is a Government teacher and expert in the field you are discussing. He has been in the classroom for 20 years working with our youth in civic engagement celebrated as evidenced by winning Teacher of the Year for a second straight year. And frankly Susan claiming she is an educator is blatantly false and if put on her ballot statement will lead to a lawsuit as you only can put an occupation on the ballot you are paid for. Susan trustee is fine not educator you will be sued for that…

    • Actually I would testify on her behalf, even though I am not supporting her. Susan is an educator. As for the “student in the back,” I have my doubts this is in the present tense. It does reveal a lot about things.

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