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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Civics for Democracy

Generations of U.S. students have viewed civics as a dull, abstract and unmemorable subject. Most civics courses have presented general principles of rights and responsibilities such as the right to vote or the duty to serve on juries. But they fail to translate these principles into concrete educating for civic action.

Our schools do not teach chemistry without a laboratory, cooking without a kitchen nor computer programming without computers. Likewise, civics cannot be properly taught without using the community as a natural laboratory so that students can learn by doing, by connecting with problem definition and response where they live. In 1987 the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching prepared a report on student service, declaring that “Teenagers in America grow up in the shadows of adult life.” The Report called for student community service to combat teenagers’ feelings of isolation and being unconnected to the larger world, “to tap an enormous source of talent, let young people know they. are needed, and help students see a connection between what they learn and how they live.”

In the same year, People for the American Way released a review of U.S. government and Civics Textbooks that described them as efforts to “please everyone and offend no one.” The review found a pattern in which “textbook publishers have removed or downplayed subjects that are controversial.” As a result, “the dynamic sense of government and politics — the fierce debates, colorful characters, triumphs and tragedies — is lost.”

The review continued: “The result of this dry recitation of facts is texts that encourage young people to be bystanders in democracy rather than active citizens. These texts fail to instill a sense of civic responsibility, challenge students to think critically, or urge them to get involved in public life.”

In light of such a deteriorating civic foundation, we have just published a book titled “Civics for Democracy: A Journey for Teachers and Students” by Katherine Isaac.

Students need practical tools to participate in a democratic society. This book offers a diverse array of citizen advocacy opportunities beyond voting. We have been in touch with many social studies teachers during the three year gestation period of this project. At two of their recent national conventions, these teachers have repeatedly expressed the need for developing civic skills and experience among their students.

Although these teachers received “Civics for Democracy” with enthusiasm, they noted that there are principals, restrictions o

. teaching materials, school boards and vested interests in turning

high schools into vocational schools for industry that can provide obstacles to teaching civics from the classroom-to-community projects.

“Civics for Democracy” is composed of four sections: (1) profiles of students in action with case studies such as the high school students in Coral Springs, Florida who successfully campaigned to save the largest stand of cypress trees in their county; (2) history of five citizen movements — civil rights, labor, women’s rights, consumer and environmental — to show how people produced change; (3) techniques for democratic

participation which include the tools citizens have used to strengthen our democracy; (4) ten projects that students can undertake within the school (as in an energy waste hunt) or in the community.

An extensive list of Resources is included that will help students and teachers in their search for information about issues around which they choose to become involved.

Students need environments that spawn maturity and creativity on their part by participating in building democracy throughout the community. There is too much commercial entertainment, MTVs, videos and other corporate upbringings absorbing their life and detaching them from adults and hands-on civic experiences.

Civic participation is a formula for human happiness — both private and public. It is more than a slogan to be intoned; it is a delight to be savored as an essential quality of life that makes democracy both daily and an authentic reality. What a shame it is for us not to convey that capability to the next generation of

Americans and the awesome problems they will have to confront civically or suffer supinely.

(For further inquiries, contact Katherine Isaac at P.O. Box 19367, Washington, D.C. 20036).