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The Importance of Teaching Civics in 2018

Updated: Jun 1

Teaching Civics Through a Practical Lens: Educators and Lawyers Can Assist with this Plight

By: Kiera Vargas


In order to accomplish the art of teaching civics in the classroom, one must understand that a traditional classroom setting is not necessarily ideal. Civics is not something that a book can teach you. Civics is something that you learn through experiences, stories, and understanding the world as a whole. Educators can teach this by assisting students with understanding the definition of civics and the actual reason for adopting such principals in our daily life. If we adopt the ideals from Michael Jackson’s 1985 song We are the World and stop “…pretending day by day that someone, somehow will soon make a change”[1] without truly understanding the way our democratic government work, we will continue to be stuck with no growth. In order to conquer change and see our students from all socio-economic levels grow, we must teach through a practical manner along with be as objective as possible.

I recall canvasing for President Obama during the 2008 elections. I was sent to a very low-socioeconomic community where many were not registered to vote. Many of those that I spoke with were unemployed and on some sort of government assistance. I related to them because this was similar to the environment I grew up. As I knocked on doors I realized just how hopeless, uneducated, and humiliated most of the individuals were as I tried to explain to them the importance of voting and even the sentiments of our 44th President. They did not really care because they felt that no one President, policy maker, or anyone in politics in general would see them for who they really were. They did not believe in anything because their community, their past, their stories were never going to be looked at through their daily lens. Humiliation was seen as someone who looked like them tried to explain to them the branches of the government while also making an attempt at explaining how the local and even state candidates were important to learn about also. They had blank stares and my heart cried out to them.

Sadly, most were African Americans and even more sadly they really had no idea how our government worked. They did not even understand that the President does not have the power of “superman.” This was not my first experience with such, but this was that “Ah ha moment”[2] that Oprah Winfrey always says takes us to understand our purpose in life. My purpose as I have known for a while is to work within such communities to assist them with the confidence and understanding of our world. How do I actually do this? I do not really know, but I do realize that with all of my previous experiences in education and law there is something that needs to be done. I was taken back to WEB Dubois’ article, “The Talented Tenth.” [3]Dubois alluded to the ten percent of Black educated going back to assist with those ninety percent contaminated, but how do you do this if those ninety percent are still hopeless?[4]

This is why a practical approach to civics is needed. While obviously it is not the sole way to save our youth in the lower-socio-economic community, or even to assure our students are well-versed in their government, but it is a start to assuring that they understand that their voice is important. It is not the saving grace to saving those that are hopeless, but just knowing that you have a chance as a young child brings a morale that a practical approach to civic education can possibly help with. During that 2008 canvasing one conversation with an elderly in her 80’s will always resonate with me. She shared her sentiments of how that “Black man; President Obama” is going to do the same thing everyone else has done for her and her family. She pointed to her grown son that was in her house and shared that he was a drug addict now and had been for a long time and since he was born as a Black male he was set up for failure. She made many references that it was the governments fault. She told me to look around and realize that people like her do not make it. This boggled my mind, because I looked like her. And even as this rambunctious twenty-something year old educated woman who grew up in a similar hopeless environment tried to explain that it was possible, I realized then that so many do not have an understanding of how much power they have. This is indeed why I believe it is important to have a practical approach to civics.

According to the Center for Civic Education, ” Civics is the study of the theoretical, political, and practical aspects of citizenship, as well as its rights and duties; the duties of citizens to each other as members of a political body and to the government. Additionally, a democratic self-government means that citizens are actively involved in their own governance, they do not just passively accept the dictums of others or acquiesce to the demands of others.”[5]

As I think about this definition and connect it to the world that so many know; the communities of hopelessness, I think of Bigger Thomas from Richard Wrights Native Son[6]. I realize these are ideals that are the norm for not just Black communities, but communities where life seems to never accept you if you are uneducated and poor. “…We were lucky [White people]. They are not. We found a land whose tasks called forth the deepest and best we had; and we build a nation, mighty and feared. We poured and are still pouring our soul into it. But we have told them: ‘This is a white man’s country…”[7] While this is a fictional book that took place in the 1930’s, the sentiments here are still just as real as they were then. In order for our youth to realize that they have a chance, they need to understand the role of the government and particularly the power that they have to make changes along with their families.

When I think of the advances that our country has made, I still see just how relevant both Dubois’ essay[8] and Wrights[9] book is. This is a key reason Civics should be taught in a practical and objective manner. As a country in today’s political climate, we need to assure that everyone is capable of understanding the roles that they play in our system. In 2017, citizens of the United States are still unsure of how our government works and many are timid to even ask questions because they do not feel it is appropriate.[10] Communities such as the one that I canvased and grew up in do not have that knowledge or understanding and fail to realize the power that they have regardless of socio-economic level or race.

As I tie this into our current educational system, so many of our black and brown kids have parents and guardians that are unable to advocate for them because they do not understand their roles as citizens. If parents and children understand their power, we might see more of these children leave such fruitless communities and become social advocates. We might see more of these children leave their communities and become attorneys, bankers, mathematicians, economists, politicians, but instead many are lead to the justice system. Being aware of the power of their voice, the hierarchy of our political system, the process of law making, etc. such children could be as Whitney Houston shares in her song The Greatest Love of All “I believe the children are our future teach them well and let them lead the way. Give them a sense of pride to make it easier…” and to do this we must educate and provide them with practical experiences.”[11]

Because civics teaches us how to understand our rights and duties as citizens, this is beyond ideal and could potentially assist us with lowering crime rates, drop-out rates, prison rates. I recall a few years back when I was a professor at an HBCU I taught a course where we expected our freshmen to look at issues revolving around the African American communities. Their overall task for the class was to work with other students and find solutions through a practical manner. They were not just to find a solution, but they also had to research organizations that were currently working with such issues. They had to research what such organizations were doing to solve such problems and then they had to propose their own idea and become social activist. This did not just help them understand civics, but it also helped me to see that such lessons needed to be taught in K-12 because the college students were just learning about the structure of our government and the roles that they played as American citizens.

Such practical approaches are needed as mentioned and as we begin to open our minds, hearts, and realize just how much power we have in this educational areana as attorneys and teachers, we could potentially have more student success. My ideals in education Is a much more simplier approach. I believe in being objective and seeing the big picture that we are taught in law school and overall life. We must understand that our experiences are not the next and instead of taking out a much needed subject, look to see how it is beneficial to our community, society, our world.

My task as a lawyer and a teacher is to help students understand not just book knowledge, but how they can and should be involved in the daily process of life!

K. Vargas is a lawyer, librarian,and an educator. Her desires are to assist with the plight of the educational system.

[1] The Artist, Michael Jackson Official Site, https://michaeljackson.com/the-artist/ (last visited Dec 12, 2017).

[2] http://www.oprah.com/omagazine/aha-moments

[3] Dubois, W.E.B. 1903. “The Talented Tenth.” Pp. 31-75 in The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes of To-Day (New York, 1903).

[4] DuBois, W.E.B. 1903. "The Talented Tenth." Pp. 31-75 in The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes of To-Day. Contributions by Booker T. Washington, Principal of Tuskegee Institute, W. E. Burghardt DuBois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles W. Chesnutt, and others. (NY: James Pott & Co., 1903).

[5] http://www.civiced.org

[6]Wright, Richard, 1908-1960. Native Son. New York :Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.

[7] DuBois, W.E.B. 1903. "The Talented Tenth." Pp. 31-75 in The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes of To-Day. Contributions by Booker T. Washington, Principal of Tuskegee Institute, W. E. Burghardt DuBois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles W. Chesnutt, and others. (NY: James Pott & Co., 1903).

[8] Wright, Richard, 1908-1960. Native Son. New York :Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.

[9] DuBois, W.E.B. 1903. "The Talented Tenth." Pp. 31-75 in The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative American Negroes of To-Day. Contributions by Booker T. Washington, Principal of Tuskegee Institute, W. E. Burghardt DuBois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles W. Chesnutt, and others. (NY: James Pott & Co., 1903).

[10] https://genius.com/Whitney-houston-greatest-love-of-all-lyrics

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