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.