L’état, c’est moi, pas nous!
“Today we have an opportunity to address the root cause of this problem: we must reform young Americans’ civic education,” she wrote in a prepared statement. “Students should be taught our nation’s history and all that makes America unique. They should see first hand the importance of civic engagement. They should have robust discussions in the classroom so they can develop critical thinking skills. Our young people need more experience engaging with elected officails and practicing the art of debate. It is also our responsibility to show them how government works” [Gov. Kristi Noem, excerpt from 2021 State of the State Address, in Wendy Pitlick, “Local Teachers React to Noem’s Call for Civics Education Reform,” Black Hills Pioneer, 2021.01.19]
Evidently Governor Noem has joined her Republican colleagues in deeming increased involvement in civic affairs is too dangerous to her selfish authoritarian agenda. In her latest culture-war distraction, Noem proposes reducing the scope of civics education by eliminating opportunities for hands-on civics engagement. In a new draft bill seeking to “protect students from action civics,” Noem proposes banning the following activities from classroom instruction in any public university, vo-tech (come on—the vo-techs aren’t teaching anything but auto mechanics and nurse tech), or state-accredited K-12 school district that would would involve these activities:
- promoting, opposing, influencing passage, sponsoring, or introducing any ballot measure, law, administrative rule, or city or county ordinance or resolution;
- influencing votes for any candidate for public office;
- influencing any public official
- expressing any particular position for or against an idea or action in a public, organized demonstration.
Noem’s bill says this ban on political speech in school activities would not include simulated protest or lobbying in a school setting. Nor, says the bill, should it be read as a ban on students exercising their freedom of speech on their own. (Noem will suppress voluntary individual expression through extra-legal means.)
But Governor Noem would forbid teachers from requiring students to engage in authentic acts of civic engagement. Teachers could not require students to write letters to the editor for actual publication. Teachers who take students to Pierre to observe the Legislature could not require that students make the day meaningful by engaging in and recording conversations with at least three legislators and stating their opinions on specific bills. Teachers could not direct students to draft local ordinances and send them to city council members to urge them to build a skate park or a youth shooting range or install stop lights and crosswalks near the school or start a police cadet ride-along program. Teachers could not assign students to make their opinions known on any matter of public interest in any public, organized, demonstrative fashion.
Read strictly, that last provision banning public, organized demonstrations for or against any idea or action could outlaw public pep rallies. Imagine: students herded into a public space, required by their mere presence to show their support for the idea that the Bulldogs are the best and urging the action of winning Friday’s basketball game—please! Stop the indoctrination! Ban those pep rallies!
Just as she misunderstands critical race theory, Governor Noem is mistranslating the term “action civics” to mean “leftists turning our kids in Communists.” “Action civics” simply means giving kids hands-on experience in authentic community affairs. Pretending students can learn about voting and legislating and governing strictly by reading books, doing worksheets, and listening to state-prescribed lectures on American exceptionalism is as foolish as suggesting that kids can learn carpentry entirely through textbooks, computer simulations, and their teacher’s stories about the time he got a scratch awl stuck in his femur.
Real civics education, with practical experience in public expression, would get more kids involved in civic affairs. The fact that even some of those kids would get involved in public expression of ideas and policies that Governor Noem doesn’t like is too much for Governor Noem to bear. Thus, she must outlaw real civics education and remove one more source of opposition to her self-serving propaganda machine.