Gotham Gazette Sat, 22 Sep 2018 17:12:00 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Teaching Our Children Democracy 38013875216 11e4080a0b z

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

People marching in the streets to protest the Trump administration’s policies often chant “This is what democracy looks like!” It’s a good reminder because many Americans have forgotten. Too many of us have taken for granted the rights and freedoms guaranteed us by the United States Constitution. But not anymore. Not when states threaten to arrest people who exercise their right to assemble and a president uses his office to bludgeon people whom he calls “losers.”

The New York Society for Ethical Culture was founded in 1876. Voter turnout that same year in the presidential race between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden was 81.8 percent nationally. During the 2016 election, the national turnout was 60.2 percent. And this past election, the turnout in New York City was a record low 21.7 percent, a far cry from mayoral elections of decades ago. We can point to many reasons for the dramatic downturn in voter turnout over the past 140 years. But one of the biggest culprits is the lack of civics education in our country.

The purpose of civics is to prepare young Americans to be reflective citizens who value democracy. In that respect, we have failed. It’s clear to see where we went wrong. In the 1980s, policymakers started shifting focus to more “teachable” subjects like math. Some 20 years later, federal funding for social studies was eliminated. The result? A generation in which only one-quarter of U.S. high school students reach a proficient standard in civics assessment. Even more shocking, just two-thirds of students can name all three branches of government.

If there is a silver lining to the results of the 2016 election, it is the dramatic increase in civic engagement. Attendance at Women’s Marches across the country and the world stood in stark contrast to the number of Trump supporters attending his inauguration the day before. Subsequent marches organized by scientists and environmental activists rallied supporters from diverse constituencies for common causes. But a permanent return to civics must start with our youth.

As humanist philosopher John Dewey wrote, “Democracy needs to be re-born in each generation and education is its mid-wife.” We take that to heart at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Through our Ethics for Children program, we work to empower youth and make them more aware and involved in civic engagement. With a lack of in-depth programs elsewhere, programs like this are a necessary tool for parents to supplement the civics education of their kids.

Civics education should start early in a child’s life so their basic rights as Americans are instilled from an early age. That’s why our program is aimed at children ages 3-12. Each month has a new theme but the overall goal is the same: To teach our children about how democracy works and keep them informed. Our democracy will not survive if future generations are unaware of their rights and responsibilities.

From today’s corrupt political leadership to the rise of bullying on the playground, there is so much about the world that is unethical. How can parents raise ethical, civic-minded children? It starts with how we introduce these ideas. It’s not enough to teach children ethics and civics. They need to experience them. Take your kids to marches and protests, such as the Youth Empowerment march our members joined. Have them attend lectures and events, like the public reading of the Declaration of Independence we hosted with civil rights attorney Norman Siegel. Make sure your kids have great role models. Let them know about kids their own age who are making a difference, like the teenagers suing the Trump administration over its inaction on climate change.

Teachers must once again take seriously their vocation to prepare children to take their places in our democracy, not only to find jobs in our economy. Current affairs can be brought into the classroom to highlight the importance of critical thinking. Student debates encourage teamwork and research, as well as the excitement of intellectual sparring. Field trips to local courthouses and governmental assemblies make democracy come alive.

Ours is a nation deeply divided over core social values. Trump’s presidency is only exacerbating this divide. Truth itself is threatened by a daily barrage of lies and “alternative facts” from the White House. People indulging in what we have come to call “confirmation bias” find information, news outlets, and online memes to fuel their righteous indignation and reject any other opinions. Whatever our differences, we who call the United States our home must find the goodness in one another and work together to call it forth. Democracy is sacred, and it is entrusted to us.

Dr. Anne Klaeysen is Leader of New York Society for Ethical Culture. On Twitter @EthicalNYC.

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Teaching Our Children Democracy Sun, 26 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
The Most Important Step to Reinvigorating Our Democracy mmv yr

Council Speaker Mark-Viverito (in green) visits a school (photo: William Alatriste)

As we reflect on the recent September primary election in New York City -- where only 14% of active registered Democrats actually cast a ballot, a 53 percent drop in turnout compared to the 2016 Democratic presidential primary -- we are concerned that the city citizenry is not adequately prepared for responsible voting. But, how can we expect young people, or adults for that matter, to participate in our democracy if we have not educated them to do so?

Many have blamed turnout woes on a lack of enthusiasm for candidates or structural voting challenges. Though there are certainly reforms to be made, instead of only perpetuating this blame, we can and should aim to inspire more participation throughout the city. A bold idea at this critical moment in our national and municipal history to increase voter participation and civic engagement is to reinvigorate civics education in New York through a new, engaging pedagogy: Action Civics.

Action Civics is a student-centered, project-based approach to delivering participatory civics education to young people. This is not your grandmother’s civics. Instead, the innovative approach to civics education begins with teacher-student interactions in the classroom, and ripples outward to help students identify community challenges, name root causes, and propose concrete solutions, which often engage local government to remedy those challenges.

This community-minded and outreach-intensive strategy provides a multitude of benefits: Action Civics gives students the key civic knowledge, skills, and motivation to develop regular voting habits, while furnishing additional motivation for teachers, parents, and other stakeholders to start or recommit to consistent voting and civic engagement themselves.

New Yorkers can boast of tremendous civic accomplishments—a public transportation system that, until the more recent constant subway delays, was the envy of the country; world-class parks in every borough; an amazing array and concentration of arts and cultural institutions; and the nation’s largest public school system, to name just a few. The city’s many accomplishments must not be taken for granted, though. As New Yorkers, we are always looking to the next frontier. Living up to our full civic potential requires a renewed commitment to preparing our young people, and all residents of our city, to exercise the franchise as educated and empowered voters. What better stage of development to begin this process than with our youth, in our classrooms?

To be clear, Action Civics is not the same as conventional civics education. Traditional civics, the mere mention of which can cause a yawn, assumes that increasing awareness about how our political system works, and rote memorization of the names of candidates and key provisions of the Constitution, is sufficient for educating and mobilizing current and future voters.

We could not disagree more. Civic knowledge is important, but must be supplemented by civic participation that adopts a “learning by doing” pedagogy.

We have found, for instance, that educating students about how to take action -- for example to advocate for the Department of Transportation to install a pedestrian safety signal at key intersections to address hit-and-run accidents near their school or pushing the State Education Department to update the outdated health education curriculum to ensure that students are educated about how addictive opioids are given the epidemic plaguing their community -- is a more effective pedagogical approach than a textbook-first experience with democracy. Not only are students taking action, but they are learning how city government or the State Education Department actually works, and who elected and appointed officials are accountable to.

Local election officials matter, not just who the President is, and Action Civics helps young people understand that in a very real way, leading to increased interest in local elections.

In a few short weeks, on Election Day, New Yorkers statewide will be presented with a back-of-the-ballot question: “Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution and amend the same?” Given this unique, once in 20-year opportunity, should it be left to chance that young (or older) people will be sufficiently informed and prepared to understand the importance of this ballot question? Will they know how to take action to advocate in support of or against such a convention? We think not, which is why we released lessons for teachers to educate 8th- through 12th-grade students about this rare opportunity.

But this is only one example highlighting the urgency of ensuring that all students statewide receive an effective Action Civics education, focused primarily on local issues.

Advocates have consistently pushed and seen tabled reforms to modernize New York’s antiquated voting laws. While enacting those reforms should remain a priority, boosting voter turnout in New York requires a more long-term vision to improve our democracy, focused on empowering citizens themselves.

Action Civics holds the promise for the future—it is a transformative, long-term investment in the health of our democracy. That is why Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the New York City Council made a bold investment in Action Civics through the Civic Education in City Schools initiative allowing Generation Citizen to bring its rigorous, standards-aligned curriculum to approximately 3,4000 New York City public school students in the 2016-17 school year. And, they renewed their investment in New York City’s young people again this school year.

We know New York’s young people need this approach, but implementing it citywide and, ultimately, statewide will take substantial resources. Now is the time for all of our city and state leaders to partner with us, and the broader civics education field, to bring true Action Civics to secondary students in New York. Then, we can dream of a day with a vibrant local democracy, in which the vast majority participates in local elections.

DeNora Getachew is Generation Citizen’s New York City Executive Director. On Twitter @DeNoraGetachewDeNoraGetachew and @gencitizen.

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The Most Important Step to Reinvigorating Our Democracy Wed, 04 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000