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Forget SB 52 Half-Credit Civics Requirement; Make Everyone Join Debate!

Our civics show ponies continue to trot out their proposals to make us all better citizens.

Former social studies teacher turned Senator Jim Bolin (R-16/Canton) offers Senate Bill 52, which would require all South Dakota high schools to offer an additional semester course in civics in addition to their existing one-semester course in U.S. government. Students would have to squeeze this half-credit in to get their diplomas.

Studying civics is great. One semester is not enough; make it a year.

Studying foreign language is great. Studying carpentry is great. Instead of letting kids take a year of one or the other, we should require them to take two years of each.

Studying history is great. But one year isn’t enough to properly study thousands of years of the human saga. We should require students to take one full year of American history, one full year of world history, and one full year of contemporary history (1970 to the present, because teachers usually start from the beginning and run out of time before they can really cover the Cold War and the Internet Age).

Studying music is great. Studying visual arts is great. Instead of requiring just one year of fine arts in general, we should require students to sing for a full semester, play an instrument for a full semester, dance for a full semester, draw for a full semester, and paint for a full semester.

I hope you get the idea: piling on arbitrary units of graduation requirements doesn’t get at the core of the problem (if there is one, and I’m not sure we’ve seen any quantitative data from Senator Bolin, Governor Noem, or any of the other surging civics-bots that there is). And making these mandates without providing funding for the additional work we’re demanding of schools inevitably means that Senator Bolin and his co-sponsors are saying to the schools, Cut something else. There are only so many hours in the day. As usual, legislators are willing to say what they want, but they aren’t willing to say what they’ll sacrifice to get their way.

The best way to teach civics is not some arbitrary additional semester course that will throw class scheduling into further confusion and crowd out the electives and other requirements diligent students are pursuing to get ready for college and careers (gee Stephanie, I know you want to take orchestra so you can win a cello scholarship at SDSU, but Jim Bolin says you have to take “civics,” so put down your bow and pick up that book). The best way to teach civics is holistically, across disciplines.

I taught civics in my English classes. I had students read, discuss, and write about current events.

I taught civics in my speech classes. I had students practice parliamentary procedure and debate school policy.

I taught civics in my French classes. I had students read French news articles and discuss world events and their impact on the United States.

Most profoundly, I taught civics when I coached debate. I coached students to research, read and listen critically, devise and evaluate policy proposals, analyze Supreme Court rulings, critique guiding principles of political science, and argue passionately while respecting their opponents.

You want a civics requirement? Cut the sports budgets and require every student to participate in debate for one season. A large portion of those coaches are social studies teachers, anyway, so the civics side of coaching debate will be right up their alley.

Senate Bill 52 pretends that doing civics just means sitting around in one classroom for 50 minutes a day for 90 days. But civics isn’t a thing we do separately. Civics is a mindset that pervades everything a conscientious citizen does. High school debate teaches that. Every class can teach that in a curriculum suffused with thoughts of every individual’s place in the great enterprise of free and pluralistic democracy.


  1. Kal Lis 2019-01-18

    Debate not only teaches the young’uns to research and argue passionately but respectfully, it also teaches them to argue both sides of an issue. Every tournament would have them going aff a couple of rounds and neg a couple of rounds.

    In an era where few want to acknowledge facts or arguments that don’t come from their preferred source(s), having to look at both sides is a necessary skill.

  2. John 2019-01-18

    This relates to civics – lessons we don’t want to see.
    The banana republicans in the US Senate (Mitt Romney, Lindsey Graham, John Cornyn, John Thune, and others) receive recognition by Russian State Television for their service to Russia – lifting the sanctions and celebrating Russian ownership of the GOP.

    How’s that for ‘arguing both sides’? Extra credit?

  3. grudznick 2019-01-18

    I couldn’t agree more with Mr. H on dictating all the things that would be great to study, as we don’t want to make our kids and grandkids and great grandkids go to school until they are 25, they need to get out there in the workforce at 18 or 16 or whatever. However, debate is where most bullying in schools takes place.

  4. Richard F Schriever 2019-01-18

    On my school bus route last night a 6th grader was holding court with a 4th grader and a 5th grader in the seat right behind my drivers’ seat, explaining to them what elective options would be available to them at the middle school level, which teachers taught what, how much homework there would be in comparative courses, and how much fun he was having being challenged to do well. Science and Biology were the main topics. Just sayin’. Keep in mind – kids really, really LIKE learning. We need to be making sure they learn as much as they can.

  5. Richard F Schriever 2019-01-18

    grudz – humans’ brains don’t even reach full development until around 23 years of age. Why would you want that brain to stop learning and start being used as a mere economic tool for the financial industry at 16-18? Or were you being sarcastic?

  6. mike from iowa 2019-01-18

    John Thune, and others) receive recognition by Russian State Television for their service to Russia – lifting the sanctions and celebrating Russian ownership of the GOP.

    Back in the day (approximately 2 years ago) had Obama and Dems openly wet their britches fawning over America’s Numero Uno enemy, the T word would have been the order of the day and every ambulatory wingnut would have made an appearance on Fake Noize to accuse Dems of being traitors.

  7. Richard F Schriever 2019-01-18

    The idea of expanding civics requirements fits nicely with a topic discussed at last night’s Lincoln County Democratic Party meeting. How do we get HS kids informed on how to be active in local politics? One idea was to be able to present at High Schools on how political parties are organized locally, who participates, how they came to be participants, and how they (local-level organizations) relate to higher level political organizations (state, national). We all recalled that when we were in HS we were not made aware of any of that. We also remarked that for the general public – we are somewhat overwhelmed by the shear volume of the news about national-level politics that it drives an internal narrative that the structure is a top-down hierarchy; that those at the top DIRECT the lower levels, when the reality is far from that. BTW – if there are any HS civics teachers reading this – feel free to contact me about making such a presentation. Thanks.

  8. Roger Elgersma 2019-01-18

    As far as doubling other subjects like carpentry, some courses are career oriented and some kids do not need it at all and others would like more time. But every student will grow up to be a citizen, so all should be trained to be a good citizen. The younger people now days do not vote all that much so they need more instruction than we were accustomed to in this area. When I was in seventh grade we even had one semester on our state history. But that was Minnesota.

  9. happy camper 2019-01-18

    For sure they need it, but even better if they could operate their own government we did a full-on banking system in elementary school actually applying the principles, earning money, being a teller, having an auction classmates still vividly remember these lessons today the teachers told me as an adult it was a lot of work but hysterical to watch these kids learn, and learn we did. “I hear I forget, I see I remember, I do I understand” sort of thing.

    Rather than carpentry hands on House Maintenance.

  10. 96Tears 2019-01-18

    Very well stated, Cory! Especially your last seven paragraphs. The fools in Pierre are passing resolutions to slap themselves and other Republicans on the back to whitewash their incompetence. They are incapable of getting anything meaningful done, and with the brainless twit Kristi in charge, nothing big will happen that has any positive meaning to it.

  11. Jason 2019-01-18

    They need to add a requirement for a credit of gun training and safety to the graduation requirements.

  12. Ryan 2019-01-18

    Definitely gun training in public schools, that’s not at all a waste of most peoples’ time and money.

    We should do sword-fight training, too.

    Let’s everyone chip in a few bucks and make arrowheads out of slate and teach the kids how to make fishhooks out of pigeon bones.

  13. Jason 2019-01-18

    Guns and fencing are involved in Olympic sports Ryan.

  14. Ryan 2019-01-18

    So is synchronized swim-dancing. So what?

  15. Debbo 2019-01-18

    I had a semester of SD history around 6-8 grade, semester of civics. I think senior year included choosing 2 of 4- economics, government, bookkeeping, sociology. That was in the 60s. Yes, I’m that old. And wise. 😉

  16. Roger Cornelius 2019-01-18

    How many different sporting activities does the Olympics sponsor?
    As the rest of the sane world works to keep guns out of school, Jason wants guns in schools for ‘teaching’ purposes.

  17. Porter Lansing 2019-01-18

    The comments on DFP are worlds ahead intellectually than the other party’s blog.
    Cory – Civics is a mindset that pervades everything a conscientious citizen does.
    Kal – In an era where few want to acknowledge facts or arguments that don’t come from their preferred source(s) …
    ~ I wouldn’t want my kids taught civics from a prepared study curriculum compiled by South Dakota Republicans and that’s no doubt what will be given to teachers, along with a test comprised of Republican civics values.
    I’d much rather have Mr. Schriever’s comprehensive plan on how political parties are organized locally, who participates, how they came to be participants, and how they (local-level organizations) relate to higher level political organizations (state, national). But of course, I’m biased to the left.
    A South Dakota high school civics curriculum MUST be written with a three legged approach. A composite of one third Republican input, one third Democratic input and one third non-affiliated input.

  18. SDBlue 2019-01-18

    My 9th grade civics teacher is the reason I became passionate about politics. His class made me so fascinated with how our government worked. Then, we took a trip to Pierre to see the legislature in action. I was so excited and ultimately, so disappointed. Half the members were not there. The half that remained were sleeping at their desk or reading the paper. Not one member even acknowledged our presence. A wide-eyed, idealistic 15 year old got a real education about politics that day. I was also blessed to have Carl Swanson as my high school debate coach. His passion was infectious. I am forever indebted to both men for their contribution to my education.

  19. mike from iowa 2019-01-18

    Guns and fencing are involved in Olympic sports Ryan.

    The Olympics can build Drumpf’s fence and protect it as well and as amateurs they can’t be paid.

    Jason, sometimes you are so goofy you are a genius.

  20. Debbo 2019-01-18

    Let’s debate this:

    Should SD senators Rounds and Thune be tried for treason for the following action:
    “[they] voted [affirmatively] on a resolution to keep sanctions against businesses ran by Putin-allied Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska in place. This is after Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin inexplicably lifted sanctions against the TrumpRussia mastermind.”

    You may choose to use the following as one of your resources.

  21. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-19

    Richard gets me thinking that part of the problem with teaching civics is that Republicans make us afraid to bring in some of the most important practitioners of civics to speak to the kids: Republican and Democratic activists. Teachers shy away from leading on-campus political clubs for fear of some partisan parent claiming the school is promoting one side of the other. The key is balance, maintained perhaps by always bringing in representatives of both sides at the same time, forcing them to talk to each other civilly in front of the kids and demonstrate how we all get along even as we vigorously oppose each other.

  22. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-19

    Carl Swanson! Yes, he embodies the kind of passion we need to infuse in our kids about civics and speech. We won’t get that by adding a separate half-credit requirement (which could well crowd out the ability to take advanced debate classes). We will get enthusiastic participants in democracy by hiring enthusiastic teachers of democracy.

    Say, Aberdeen Central’s debate coach, Kerry Konda, teaches an “American Democracy” course that fuses civics and speech. Would Senator Bolin let Konda’s class count toward that half-credit requirement?

  23. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-19

    I regret that SDBlue found such disappointment in her HS visit to the Legislature. I imagine a lot of students come away feeling that same way after watching our less-than-stellar representatives failing to rise to the level of intellectual and selfless statespersonship.

    But that may be all the more reason to bring the kids, not just for a day, but for week-long field trips and internships. A great component of civics education (maybe in a separate civics class, maybe in the existing government class, maybe in Konda’s speech-synthesis class, maybe in composition class, maybe in extra-curricular debate, maybe in a cross-disciplinary assignment that kids work on in three different classes with all three teachers collaborating) would be to follow four bills through the Legislative Session:

    • Pick bills on a variety of topics, two from House, two from Senate.
    • Pick at least one bill proposed by the Governor, one from an interim committee, and two from local legislators (if available, if they aren’t saddled with some lazy schlub like Kaleb Weis, who probably struggles to write his own name, let alone his own bills).
    • Go to Pierre on a day when at least one of those bills is in committee or on the floor (probably impossible to organize, given short lead time in Pierre and the administrative hassle of arranging a daylong excused absence, but dang it, there we go again with the disadvantage of a geographically remote capital).
    • Listen to committee audio and watch floor video live online whenever it coincides with class time (all the more reason to have this SD civics unit multidisciplinary, so you could watch during morning English class, afternoon history class, whenever).
    • Require students to write briefs on the chosen bills and submit them to committees as written testimony. If possible, couple that with opportunities to testify before committee if visits coincide with hearings.
    • Lead by example: have the teachers write their own letters to legislators and testify live before committees.
    • Before the chosen bills go to committee, prepare and publish to YouTube student videos of testimony for and against each bill (including some testimony assigned and drawn at random, so kids get practice at what Kal Lis refers to as one of the great merits of HS debate, having to argue both sides).
    • Record and post to YouTube parliamentary debates conducted by students on each bill, including votes of the full class.

    That’s how we can do real South Dakota civics education. Show students the process. Show them they can do it better than the yahoos in Pierre. Encourage them to study these South Dakota issues and get involved.

  24. Donald Pay 2019-01-19

    How about a course called “Life?” Just roll everything that people need to know into one course for a half-credit.

    I think students would benefit from civics, but let’s not kid ourselves that the leaders in South Dakota are in any position to require something they have so little use for. Really, you want Speaker Wacky to be telling your kids about the First Amendment and how to conduct himself in a leadership position? Speaker Wacky’s lesson is this: don’t do what I do.

    I had good civics and American Government courses. I had a current events course. All of them were great. I didn’t take debate, because at that time I was not self-confident enough. My introduction to real civics was volunteering in protests and campaigns before I could vote. It was a time like this where we had a crooked liar as President.

  25. Donald Pay 2019-01-19

    Great lesson planning, Cory. Perfect, really.

  26. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-19

    Thanks, Donald. My curriculum would be a lot easier to implement if the state didn’t keep slapping schools with additional formal half-credit requirements.

    And yes, Speaker Haugaard should be sent back for remedial education on the First Amendment. A teacher who punished a student for writing an essay like Taylor’s would face reprimand from the school board.

  27. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-19

    By the way, Mike’s humorous abuse of e pluribus unum on another thread reminds me: we also need to require high school students to take a full year of Latin.

  28. mike from iowa 2019-01-20

    From Sheila Kennedy post today (1/20/19)

    A colleague and I recently surveyed voucher programs operating around the U.S., in order to see whether any of those programs required participating schools to teach civics. You will probably not be surprised to learn that none did. I’m relatively confident that if we conducted a follow-up survey, we would be equally unable to find programs imposing non-discrimination requirements. Any nondiscrimination requirements, not just those protective of LGBTQ students and faculty.

  29. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-01-21

    As Donald notes from his experience, civics, like most things, is best learned in practice.

  30. Brett 2019-02-01

    As a government teacher I really do not see the need for an additional course. When I first started teaching we also had a civics course. Students complained about the overlap of the two classes. Much of the material was similar and that was the reason the school district dropped civics as all of the state requirements were also met in government class. If they wanted to add some civics components into the government requirement it would not be too difficult and most of what they add is probably already taught. This bill is really a complete waste of our students time due to the redundancy with an already required class.

  31. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-02-02

    Thanks, Brett! I agree: I have yet to hear any clear definition of what this extra civics course would cover that isn’t already in other courses. I haven’t heard any legislators talking about expanding speech and debate or requiring community service.

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