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Another Voice: How our civics classes undermine democracy

By Ronald Fraser

Elected officials pay a lot more attention to the care and feeding of big campaign financiers and corporate lobbyists than to the ordinary citizens who voted them into office. But largely hidden from view is how American schools actually help these fat cats hijack the American democracy.

High school civics and government textbooks give young citizens-to-be a version of democracy based more on myths than political reality. Added to this less-than-honest picture of the political system awaiting them, schools also fail to teach the skills citizens need to hold elected officials accountable to the people.  

High school civics and government textbooks typically include a standard description of the three branches of government, separation of powers, rule of law and how the principle of popular sovereignty empowers citizens.

For example, “Government Alive! Power, Politics, and You,” a typical high school text, tells its readers that: “Popular sovereignty lies at the heart of democratic rule. It means that power resides not with the government or its leaders, but with the people.”

How well do schools translate this power-to-the-people into power-in-fact once students leave school? Not so well, it turns out.

A 1987 report, prepared by People for the American Way, reviewed 18 government and civics texts, and concluded: “The overall approach to teaching government in high schools should be changed from merely imparting information to more broadly preparing students to become concerned, active citizens.”

The bottom line: We are, in effect, setting kids up for failure as citizens. Schools do not give their students the personal civic convictions and real-world skills citizens need to make self-rule work. To carry out their schoolbook role, citizens must develop an array of civic skills including the ability to carefully research public issues, speak out on and write about these issues, and join reform groups and political rallies – all aimed at holding their elected officials and the governing process accountable.

Once citizens see that their central role has been co-opted by powerful special interest groups, the legitimacy of America’s self-rule democracy is at risk. A healthy democracy depends on a high level of trust among its citizen. As trust slips away and political apathy sets in, civic participation goes downhill, further opening the political front door for the fat cats.

What to do? Stop telling kids they are the supreme political power when, in fact, they are not. Make sure students are prepared to carry out their civic responsibilities. Poor civic preparation ensures poor civic performance.

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., a Western New York writer, is the author of “America, Democracy & YOU: Where have all the Citizens Gone?”