Civics, everyone?

by Vince Durnan, director

A lesson on civic engagement from USN's Contemporary Civics "teacher."
The flurry of events in Washington, D.C., with confirmation hearings, inaugural festivities, associated protest events, and all things related to the “peaceful transfer of power” make this an uncommon new year. And what should it mean for schools?
This is also the month when I resume “teaching” a half-credit course (for soon-to-be graduating seniors) called Contemporary Civics. Suffice to say it’s a bubbling font of anecdotes and one of the guaranteed highlights at USN for me. We start by taking stock of what we know about the world around us and how we know it.  With regard to our engagement with and in public discourse, here are two unsettling points of departure:
Most people in our country don’t know much. A recent University of Pennsylvania study indicated only one-third of Americans could name Joe Biden as vice president, or name the three branches of government, or even one Supreme Court justice. You’ve seen these figures and maybe become inured to them. Maybe we all have. I’ll leave out the part about pop culture stuff we do all seem to know.
Past that, the truth is routinely cited as an endangered species. My so-called class just reviewed a Pew Research Survey that found three-quarters of Americans see news providers as favoring one side of any issue. And alarmingly, only 10 percent of the 18 to 29-year-old demographic trusts national news sources—10 percent. No wonder two-thirds of them say they rely in part or exclusively on what they hear from others rather than reading (or even watching) for themselves.
These figures and the corresponding degree of national discontent about the nature of our electorate will likely wake a snoozing educational giant. It’s not hard to find nostalgic references to the civics classes of old, to halcyon days of widely read print newspapers that didn’t compete with eyeball chasing cable news channels in a race to the bottom. We heard chapter and verse on that from Nashville Scene founder Bruce Dobie and editor Steve Cavendish (who puts out a weekly now often half the length it used to be) in their campus talk three days ago.
The predictable result will be a renewal of required civics courses in the country, an additive move from an additive bureaucracy. There will be standards and exams and seat time mandates, but will they help? Our own state legislature added into law only last year a citizenship test with 25 to 50 multiple choice questions that high school graduates must pass with at least 70 percent accuracy. Surely some effort is better than none, and an additional voice at the curriculum table is better than systematic exclusion. But civic content may not translate to civic engagement.
USN has no civics credit distribution requirement. We study our city in second grade, our state in fourth grade, our nation in fifth, eighth, and 11th grades, among other times, and we offer two large Advanced Placement Government electives to seniors, so we could claim curricular inclusion. But how baked in is civic participation in our school culture? 

Model United Nations and Youth Legislature draw big High School numbers for weekend programs, and our Community Service Club is the school’s largest, tending our partnerships locally. The benefit of learning by doing is universally acknowledged around here, and I’m sure we/I have work to do on that front. So stay tuned as we talk about next generation initiatives.

What can you do? Start a family conversation about how you encounter the news, what you read, why you choose those sources, what you see as your civic responsibility to stay informed, how curated your perspectives are, to use the current vernacular. To what extent are the Pew Survey numbers reflective of your experience? Then think of what you might do.
Consider the upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. observance as a day on and not a day off. Think about attending the citywide program at Tennessee State University on Monday, Jan. 16. Sign on to a community service project with Hands on Nashville, or attend one of the talks Vanderbilt University is so good for sponsoring. And realize that we are in this together, that we each matter, and that there are consequences to our being too busy or cynical to stay up to speed.
Feeling the imperative,
    • Nashville Scene founder Bruce Dobie, left, looks on as editor Steve Cavendish, right, speaks to seniors and faculty Monday, Jan. 9.

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