Civics as taught, for example, in New York State

Social Studies educational standards as designed by public education systems, and the civic participation and citizenship topics therein, might on first examination look well-done. But there are some serious omissions in what is taught, omissions that seek to prevent students from shouldering the mantle of power that it is their right and even duty to wear as Americans. Considering the general lack of political literacy among Americans, and the sad state of affairs with voter participation levels, including in my home state of New York, I had presumed that Civics and Citizenship are not required areas of study in public schools. Upon researching the question of curricular requirements in New York State, though, I discovered that — in addition to what is actually a strong Social Studies curriculum standard — the Legislature and Governor enacted (in 2001) a new section in the education law requiring citizenship instruction:

§801-a. Instruction in civility, citizenship and character education. The regents shall ensure that the course of instruction in grades kindergarten through twelve includes a component on civility, citizenship and character education. Such component shall instruct students on the principles of honesty, tolerance, personal responsibility, respect for others, observance of laws and rules, courtesy, dignity and other traits which will enhance the quality of their experiences in, and contributions to, the community. The regents shall determine how to incorporate such component in existing curricula and the commissioner shall promulgate any regulations needed to carry out such determination of the regents.

A memo quoting this law that was sent out in September, 2001 by a deputy commissioner of state education to superintendents and principals goes on to say:

School districts are encouraged to establish a process for analyzing their existing efforts, kindergarten through twelfth grade, in providing instruction in civility, citizenship and character education. Through this process, districts can build upon established practices to strengthen curriculum and staff development in these areas. Attached are lists of materials to assist school districts in complying with the requirements for instruction in civility, citizenship and character education.

… and this is followed by a long and rich list of links and publications. [Of course whether this curriculum is well-implemented (if at all) is another question, and I will touch on this in another post.]

The social studies curricular requirements established by the New York State Board of Regents, as described in the “Social Studies Resource Guide” published by the Department of Education, is much better than I expected when it comes to instruction in Civics and Citizenship. It includes age-appropriate curriculum beginning in Kindergarten that focuses on civility and good citizenship, steps students through key historical events including citizen-initiated movement towards progress such as the civil rights era of the 1960s, encourages incorporating civic and citizenship and “character” education with an integrative approach into all subjects, and fosters inquiry into the roles and responsibilities of citizens.

The Guide provides this long and quite decent list of concepts, themes and connections that teachers are to use to organize their classroom discussions:

Civic Values
Constitutional Principles
Culture and Intellectual Life
Economic Systems
Factors of Production
Foreign Policy
Human Systems
Immigration and Migration
Individuals, Groups, Institutions
Physical Systems
Places and Regions
Reform Movements
Presidential Decisions and Actions
Science and Technology

All this sounds great, right?

There are two glaring shortcomings, though, that I find telling:

1. How to actually participate in America’s political system gets the short shrift

Concrete instruction in “how to participate” is not touched upon in the Guide. It is not until page 156 in this 198-page document that this area of study gets a mere one-half of a page:

Grade 12 Social Studies: Participation in Government
Students studying participation in government in grade 12 should experience a culminating course that relates the content and skills component of the K-11 social studies curriculum, as well as the total educational experience, to the individual student’s need to act as a responsible citizen.

Course content will:
• be interdisciplinary, for it will be drawn from areas beyond the defined social studies curriculum; will include life experience beyond classroom and school
• be related to problems or issues addressed by students, i.e., content in the form of data, facts, or knowledge may vary from school to school, but real and substantive issues at the local, State, national, and global levels should be integrated into the program
• be in the form of intellectual processes or operations necessary to deal with data generated by problems or issues addressed, i.e., the substance of the course.

In addition, the term “participation” must be interpreted in the broad sense to include actual community service programs or out-of-school internships, and in-class, in-school activities that involve students in the analysis of public issues chosen because of some unique relevance to the student involved. Defining, analyzing, monitoring, and discussing issues and policies is the fundamental participatory activity in a classroom.

I have no argument with anything that is contained in this approach to culminating K-12 Social Studies. But these students will be graduating at voting age. My objection is to what is omitted here:  Nothing in the curriculum is designed to help students navigate political news, follow politicians and candidates during election cycles, nor to actually vote.

Some key questions that are not touched upon in this unit description, and that of course are critical considerations for a young person headed into their majority as citizens, and activities that ought to be included in the lesson planning, might include:

  • Where is your polling place?
  • What seats will be up for election after you turn 18?
  • How to get registered to vote? How to fill in a ballot? What alternate forms of voting are available, such as early voting, mail-in ballots, and military ballots?
  • Why is it important to pay attention to local politics, when the media will focus almost exclusively on national elections and the occasional governorship or Senate seat that is important when viewed through a national lens? Where to get good local information and news.
  • Leveraging communications technology/mobile tools to stay informed and to discuss issues with others.
  • Media-consumption savvy and fact-checking: How do you know what to believe in the news, in videos, on Facebook, etc.? The importance of seeking multiple sources before making any conclusions. A look at some of information that is out there that is less than factual, yet people believe and spread it. Why did they believe it? Who was publishing the info and what was their agenda? Where could people have looked to check the facts?
  • Field trips to town halls and state legislatures, to watch law-making in action.
  • Discussion of special-interest influence: money in politics, and lobbyists.
  • Why you will be called on at some point to do jury duty, as a result of registering to vote, and how that works.
  • Who can run for public office (“any citizen!” … with some requirements at some levels) and what kind of schooling and experience to pursue if you might be interested in doing so someday.

2. Dissent as a tool for social change when the system is broken, only a thing of the past? Authority and power — who holds the power and must we obey?

The State curriculum — while it does of course cover the American Revolution, and also  other instances of revolt and dissent including the demonstrations and civil rights actions of the 1960s — does not contemplate that the students themselves may some day be up against political issues that call for vocal dissent or even civil disobedience. In a public school classroom you will not find students exploring the history of civil disobedience and discussing opinions as to when it is “right” and when it is “wrong.” You will not find students being invited to consider whether they would be prepared to take the social and legal (and possibly physical) risks involved in standing up against “authority” to demand a change they feel is crucial to the social evolution of America.

The omission of deep inquiry into this topic is, of course, not surprising in a curriculum designed by officials whose very authority to determine teaching standards, and whose career path to that position of authority, is conferred upon them by a system that wants to keep itself in place.

One sentence in particular jumped out at me from the “Social Studies Resource Guide” above all the other content it its 200 pages. In the “Civics, Citizenship, and Government” section (p.10) of its overview of “Concepts and Themes for Social Studies”:

Power refers to the ability of people to compel or influence the actions of others. “Legitimate power is called authority.”

What does this mean?! I’d go along with the first sentence, but let’s look at what is behind the tautology posited by those five words in the second sentence:

Legitimate Power = Authority

This is set out near the beginning of this entire educational Guide, as one of the fundamentals upon which the entire set of standards is built. So, then, only those in Authority have Legitimate Power? The everyday citizen then, who is not elected or appointed to a position the in executive, legislative or  justice systems does not have Power? And the fact that some individuals have been elevated to a position of authority, regardless of their character and activities, makes them “Legitimate”?


In spite of the very rich and detailed Social Studies standards that are set out in this guide, the fact that they are founded upon this world view establishes an agenda (that continues throughout the curriculum) that equates good citizenship with service and obedience while ignoring any coverage of the power of citizens to disagree, to practice dissent, to agitate, or to simply do an end-run around authority and make change happen.

“Respect for the law” and for “authorities” is being taught without allowing for the questions: “But are the laws right, and are the authorities deserving of my respect? And if the laws are not right and authorities are corrupt or inept, if our rights are being infringed by our own government, if we have fundamental and deep objections to what our government does in our name … what can we do about it?”

By design, it seems, there is a big hole in the foundation of this curriculum, and thus by the time we get from the first day of K to the graduation day of 12, we have not imparted to students a sense of their true power.


About ilyse kazar

Ilyse Kazar is a planeteer. She is also a writer, small-org consultant, solutions architect, community organizer, animal lover, eternal student, and amateur artist. She lives and works in the Lower East Side NYC.
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