A committee of Indiana educators, stakeholders, and lawmakers are sitting down to craft the guidelines of what will become a mandatory civics course for sixth graders. This course is long overdue and had bi-partisan support. In complete transparency, I actually in my testimony in support of the initiative when it was making its way through the statehouse. However, this conversation came well before the curriculum wars of 2021, and many component that could be taken as for granted then, are now up in the air.
Teaching students about civics inherently involves discussions over topics that some people have recently categorized as “partisan” or “divisive.” But however controversial these concepts have become, you really can’t separate them from civics curriculum without creating gaps in the key points of understanding. Additionally, your especially bright students are going to notice those gaps and make you address them anyway.
For example: When I taught a lesson about Congress and congressional districts. The first action students took was to look at district maps. Almost immediately I got the question: “Why does this district look so funny?” Of course, the answer to this is because the political party in power typically draws their state’s map in a way that favors them come election time. That’s called gerrymandering. Gerrymandering may not be on the final list of standards the committee comes up with. It might also be something that a parent may take issue with me discussing in class, but it is a large part of our political process that both parties engage in, and it directly impacts votes, outcomes and strategy.
It’s not just gerrymandering. Topics like that are littered all over any good civics’ unit.
The first few years I taught about the Supreme Court I told students that when a justice retires or dies the sitting president appoints a new one and Congress votes on that appointment. When Obama nominated Merrick Garland we saw that wasn’t actually the case. That event was useful when I had to explain to students why liberals were pressuring Stephen Breyer to resign this year.
Explaining how Hillary Clinton and Al Gore both won the popular vote but still lost their elections might rile some parents up, but it is also critical to understanding how the Electoral College works and more importantly how it doesn’t.
When teaching the US constitution, you have to explain that “We the People” didn’t actually mean all the people at first. If you don’t, how else do you explain all of those amendments that come later?
Someone might read this and think this is just more Anti-American, woke activist-teacher propaganda. Nothing can be further from the truth. I personally believe that America is a relatively great country to live in with the potential to be even greater. After all, there are many other countries where women and ethnic minorities didn’t start out with rights … and never got them. However, we have to be honest about the issues that led us to this point and the features of our government that still impact us today. This means that yes the class shouldn’t necessarily be Patriotism 101 but it also shouldn’t be anti-American either. After all, it is the features of the constitution that allow us to talk about the government through this lens.
It appears the committee members are committed to leaving a lot of the details up to individual schools and districts. That would be ideal. Hopefully all of those individual schools and districts take a cue from the Founding Fathers and foster the type of free thought that made the union strong in the first place.