Monday, April 20, 2009

So, class, is civics just roadside distraction?

Admittedly, it was early in the morning for a discussion of civics. Who would have known that the subject that would cause hands to shoot up would be bluebonnets?

We'd been over several subjects, me and a dozen or so community college freshmen. Each subject might have sparked a reaction. Each was about engaging in our world. I'm not sure how the conversation turned to bluebonnets, but suddenly the room was flooding with ardent experts.

"Picking them is illegal," said one. "My mom said it's against the law," said another. One more student echoed the concern. Wow.

Now we were rolling. I almost hated to point out that they were parroting a myth, an urban legend. The Texas Department of Transportation even puts out press releases to dispel it.

This burst of concern and certainty was a civics lesson unto itself. Being like most of their peers, these young people are not well-versed on government. And what government they know (or think they know) is the punitive kind — the don't-litter, don't-jaywalk kind.

They aren't at all versed in the you-are-the-government kind. Why in the heck is that?

How could our state have joint custody of them 13 years, captive audiences to inform, and not inform them in school about what it does? How could appreciation for civics — citizenship, government — be so dismal?

The professionals of whom I asked this question shared my concern.

"A few of them will be scientists. A few of them will be authors. But everyone of them will be citizens," said Judy Brodigan, president of the Texas Council for Social Studies.

The retired teacher said that particularly at the elementary level, social studies is shunted off to the side for pursuits tested on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills — math, reading, writing and science. Hence, students lack a foundational feel for civics.

To Sharon Pope, a former educator who edits Social Studies Texan, the problem isn't state standards. They actually are commendable, she said. The problem at the secondary level is spotty emphasis and quality of instruction.

We are to assume that social studies gets more emphasis in high school because the state requires tests on it. That depends. Is the subject given the relevance it merits? Or is it just facts, figures and a "what's on the test" check-off?

Pope prefers to teach "concepts of power and responsibility." As a teacher, her textbook wasn't the textbook, she said. It was the newspaper. It was the wealth of information on the Internet. Therein, you've got conversation starters every day, like Texas' governor imputing that our state doesn't need the rest of the country if run by big-government types. An exercise, class: In what ways does Texas rely on the federal government?

Class, how are schools built? Who decides what students wear and why?

It takes no stretching to make government relevant to a child. None. So, why don't we?

Once again, there's that test, and our bunker-built construction around basic skills, reading, writing, arithmetic. The most injurious fact is that the students with the greatest need end up getting the least context.

Said Brodigan: "The students who most need [civics emphasis] are the most deprived. These are students whose parents don't speak English and know nothing about our system and such issues as citizenship. However, when they have reading deficiencies, the extra time is taken out of their social studies. It's a disservice."

What is school about if not to become a contributing, engaged citizen? Class, discuss.

John Young's column appears Thursday and Sunday. E-mail:

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