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.