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Civic Education

  • Federal Policy And Tribal Sovereignty

    Written on September 16, 2021

    In honor of Constitution Day (September 17th), this blog series invites teachers and leaders in the field of civics and democracy education to address the question: Why is it important to teach the Constitution? Our guest author today is Jordann Lankford-Forster. an educator and an IEFA instructional coach for Great Falls Public Schools in Great Falls, Montana. Jordann is A’aniiih and Anishinaabe, and her A’aniiih name is Bright Trail Woman. Other posts in this series can be found here.

    American Indian Federal policy has historically played a significant role in tribal sovereignty. This is always a difficult subject to explain because it is so multifaceted. Prior to colonization, tribal sovereignty was exercised absolutely, with tribes interacting on a government-to-government basis, and under total self-sufficiency. Today, major contributing factors to achieving total sovereignty include location, access to resources, and relationship status with the Federal Government. It is important to remember that tribal sovereignty—or the ability to remain separate and independent—looks different for every tribe. As (the 574) tribes and individual American Indians navigate their future, the Constitution is continually referenced as a means to gain a strong foothold within the country that we now know as the United States of America. 

    I teach in a small district in Great Falls, Montana. Our student population is 16.5 percent American Indian and 44 different tribes are represented within our school system. My district is considered “urban” because it is in a city rather than located on a reservation. In 1972 the Montana Constitution was revised to recognize the “distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians”  and to be “committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.” And, as a district, we are continually trying to ensure we honor that. At times, it is difficult for my students because they do not always feel like they have a sense of identity within this country.

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  • Why Teach The Constitution?

    Written on September 15, 2021

    In honor of Constitution Day (September 17th), this blog series invites teachers and leaders in the field of civics and democracy education to address the question: Why is it important to teach the Constitution? Our guest author today is Zeph Capo, a public school science teacher, president of the Texas AFT, and member of the Shanker Institute Board of Directors. Other posts in this series can be found here.

    Collective bargaining is the cornerstone on which we built the middle-class. As a labor leader, it is the best tool used by workers to earn a seat at the table as equals with their employer. It is also how we develop a contract outlining one another’s roles, rights, and responsibilities in the workplace. As an educator, I ask: How do we expect workers to understand the process and power of collective bargaining if they don’t understand the power and process of governance as outlined in our Constitution?

    I believe teaching the Constitution is vital, because it is the premier collectively-bargained contract present in our lives. The rights, responsibilities, and regulations set forth in the Constitution serve as the bedrock on which we develop all other aspects of the agreements governing the many facets of our society.

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  • Teaching Students The Textualist Interpretation Of Law

    Written on September 14, 2021

    In honor of Constitution Day (September 17th), this blog series invites teachers and leaders in the field of civics and democracy education to address the question: Why is it important to teach the Constitution? Our guest author today is David Said, a social studies teacher at Athens High School in Troy, Michigan. Other posts in this series can be found here.

    In a fairly recent court case, Bostock v. Clayton County (2020), the US Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that sex discrimination does cover gay and transgender individuals under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. One of the more surprising aspects of this case was that the majority opinion was delivered by associate justice Neil Gorsuch. Appointed by President Trump to replace the late Antonin Scalia, most assumed he would tow the line of conservative jurisprudence. In joining with Chief Justice John Roberts and all three of the courts liberal leaning justices, Gorsuchs majority decision showcased a level of judicial independence that is important for the maintaining the integrity of this important institution. 

    A key part of Gorsuchs judicial philosophy is grounded in a concept called textualism.” Simply put, textualism is an interpretation of law in which the words of the legal text are analyzed through the lens of their normal meaning. It is quite common for Justices to include authors’ intent, historical examples, and most importantly precedence as factors when deciding a case that comes before the Supreme Court. Textualism appears to simplify this process altogether by requiring one to truly dig deep into the meaning of words and phrase. In the Bostock case, the word that Gorsuch zeroed in on was sex” within Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Discriminating against an individual or group because of their sex could reasonably be interpreted to include gender as well as sexual orientation. The six Justices in the majority agreed with that preceding sentence. Conversely, the Justices in the minority were quick to point out that members of the legislative branch were likely not thinking of anything beyond men or women in the year 1964.

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  • Understanding The Complexities Of History

    Written on September 13, 2021

    In honor of Constitution Day (September 17th), this blog series invites teachers and leaders in the field of civics and democracy education to address the question: Why is it important to teach the Constitution? Our first guest author is Stephen Lazar, is a National Board Certified Social Studies teacher, who is typically teaching students Social Studies and English at Harvest Collegiate High School in NYC, which he helped to start. This year, he is on sabbatical and a Ph.D. candidate in history at the CUNY Graduate Center and is one of the Shanker Institute Civics Fellows. Other posts in this series can be found here.

    This is my first Constitution Day in some time where I will not be teaching high school students, since I am on sabbatical as I work towards a Ph.D. in history. When I am teaching history, there are two things I want students to understand more than anything else. First, history is complicated; things are rarely simply good or bad. Second, I want students to understand that that history is not merely a list of sequential facts. Instead, history is made up of competing interpretations. I regularly tell my students that historians, far more knowledgeable than we are, look at all the available evidence and come to different conclusions from each other. When I return to the classroom next fall, I plan to engage my students in one such disagreement in looking at the impact of the Constitution on people who were enslaved.

    Increasingly over the past few years, my students have come with strong opinions on the Constitution’s relationship to the institution of slavery. This happens for a variety of reasons: engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement, watching Thirteenth on Netflix, and exposure to the growing public discourse that examines the history of racism in the United States. Whereas a decade ago, most of my students knew very little about the Constitution or had a relatively positive view of it, now a critical mass of my students strongly believe that the Constitution laid the foundation for a racist society because it was proslavery.

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  • It Was Never About The Buses: Personal And Political Reflections On “Forced Busing”

    Written on July 11, 2019

    White protestor attacks African-American passerby with American flag at a 1976 ‘anti-busing’ rally in Boston. (Photo credit: NPR)

    I have only a few distinct childhood memories of hearing someone utter the racial slur “N*****.” To be honest, I do not doubt that there were more incidents than those I now remember, but some instances were so stark and hateful, so soul wrenching, that I could not forget them, even as the passage of time has come to be counted in decades.

    One of my earliest recollections dates back to the fall of 1964, in my 6th grade class at St. Matthias Elementary School. The nun who taught the class had us research that year’s presidential election, and each of us had to decide which of the major party candidates – Johnson or Goldwater – we would support. During the ensuing class discussion, a fellow student announced that she supported Goldwater, as he would keep “the Niggers from being bused into our neighborhood schools.” Even as an eleven year old, I was stunned that this racial slur was used openly in a school dedicated to educating students in the values of the Catholic faith, and that the reaction of the nun teaching our class was to mollify, rather than admonish.

    St. Matthias was located in Ridgewood, a neighborhood on New York City’s Brooklyn-Queens border. In those days, Ridgewood was far to the right, a home to many who had been Nazi sympathizers and American Firsters during the 1930s and to others who had fled Eastern Europe at the end of World War II.[i] It was the anchor of the only assembly district in all of New York City to vote for Goldwater in 1964, and I was one of just two students in my large 6th grade class to support Johnson.

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  • Citizenship, Rights, And Race

    Written on May 28, 2019

    A week ago, the Departments of Sociology and History at the University of Michigan organized a symposium in honor of Peggy Somers, Theorizing and Historicizing: Political Economy, Rights, and Moral Worth. I have learned much from reading Somers and consider her to be in the first rank of sociologists and theorists of her generation, so I was honored to be asked to contribute to a conference that recognized her work. What follows was adapted from my presentation. – LC 

    As the subtitle of Peggy Somers’ 2008 book, Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness, and the Right to Have Rightsmakes clear, her subject rests on a conceptual foundation taken from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. That is, the twin ideas that citizenship is the “right to have rights” and that the denial of citizenship takes the form of “statelessness.”The architecture of Somers’ compelling argument – including her powerful analysis of the dialectic of citizenship and race in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which unfortunately has proven so prescient for understanding the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico today – is built upon this foundation. To fully appreciate Somers’ use of these concepts, it is important to begin with the understanding that, intertwined in these Arendtian formulations, are political science claims of an analytical nature and political philosophy claims of a normative nature.

    Arendt’s political science claim is rooted in her analysis of the historical experience of Jews under Nazi Germany. She finds the immediate origins of the Holocaust in the post-World War One breakup of the Austrian-Hungarian, Ottoman, German and Russian empires. Europe was reorganized into nation states defined by distinct ethnic identities, creating national-ethnic minorities that were denied citizenship in a number of cases. As people who had been the historic target of racist tropes that questioned their loyalty to the community as a whole, Jews and Roma were particularly vulnerable in this new European order, too easily made into "stateless" people with no rights.

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  • Finding Common Ground In Civics Education

    Written on March 22, 2019

    The following post is based on remarks by Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, delivered March 13, 2019 at the ASI conversation, "Civic Education: Is There Common Ground?"

    Ever since the mid-19th century, when the United States adopted a system of universal and free public education in the form of “common schools,” we have debated what should be taught in our schools and how we should teach it. The controversies over the Common Core are only the most recent chapter in a large volume of what one historian of American education has described as the “education wars.” In a democratic and pluralist society, such debate is both inevitable and necessary. Education is the process by which we enculturate and socialize our youth. What we teach and how we teach it is a statement on who we believe we, as a people, are and how we came to that identity. And, perhaps even more importantly, it is an affirmation of who we aspire to be as a people. Education is our declaration on what we believe it means to be an American.

    While language arts, mathematics and science all involve different and important aspects of American identity, no subject is more central to American identity than social studies and history, and in particular, than civics. In the United States, civics is education into citizenship in a republic founded on the ideal of rule by its citizens, the ‘we the people’ that announces itself as the ultimate author of the American constitution in its very first words. So civics goes directly to the heart of who is and is not a citizen of the United States, and what rights and duties American citizens possess. It goes directly to the question of the power of ordinary citizens — rather than elites — in determining both how we rule and how we are ruled. It should be a matter of no surprise, then, that the fiercest contests over the content and method of American education have taken place in civics, social studies and history. Our ability to find common ground in the teaching of civics cannot be separated from our ability to find common ground on what it means to be an American — both as a matter of history and as a matter of aspiration — or from our ability to find common ground in how we understand American democracy itself and what we want American democracy to be.

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  • Teaching – And Defending – American Democracy

    Written on August 27, 2018

    If recent history demonstrates anything, it is the old truth that American democracy is a work in progress, and that it can suffer reversals as well as advances. The teaching of civics in our schools should convey the complex and fluid character of American government, and the concurrent responsibility of citizens to be actively involved in politics in order to defend and expand the rights and freedoms of American democracy. At a moment of great risk for democracy, both in the United States and abroad, it is especially important for young people to understand that the moral arc of history does not bend on its own, but only by the active intervention of ordinary people. We may still have a republic, even in this moment of dangerous turmoil, but—as Benjamin Franklin famously opined—only if the citizenry can keep it.

    Seen in this light, the crash course on how to teach civics offered by the Fordham Institute’s Checker Finn is an exemplar of what NOT to do. In an age of the rise of authoritarian and racist populisms of the far right, including that found at the pinnacle of American government, Finn is exercised about the emergence of an embryonic democratic socialist current in American politics. Of particular concern is what he sees as an “appalling” New York Times op-ed by two young editors of the socialist journal Jacobin, which argued that “subversion of democracy was the explicit intent of the framers” of the Constitution, and advocated constitutional reform to make the American system more democratic. 

    The idea that the 1789 Constitution contained significant anti-democratic elements seems to be anathema to Finn. Armed with an exegesis of Federalist Paper 10 which misses the essence of James Madison’s argument, he asserts that the purpose of the Constitution was the promotion and defense of democracy, full stop, and that is how it must be taught in civics courses.

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  • The Importance Of Civil Society And Civic Education: The Bulgarian Example

    Written on November 2, 2017

    Our guest author today is Tatiana Vaksberg, one of the founders of the 1989-90 Bulgarian students movement and an award-winning investigative journalist based in Sofia, Bulgaria, concentrating on issues of human rights and transitional governance. This post was adapted from her remarks to the ASI’s recent Crisis of Democracy conference.

    My country is one of those places in Eastern Europe that said “no” to communism 28 years ago in an attempt to build a new and democratic society. Back in 1989, I was among the young students in Bulgaria that formed the first free student organization in 40 years. We struggled for a new constitution that would allow a multiparty system, freedom and respect for human rights.

    In 1991, I started working for Bulgarian television’s central news desk. I have worked in the field of journalism ever since, which obviously changed my perspective. I started reporting on the way the new constitutional provisions were implemented and on the way other people continued to struggle. But what has never left my mind was the importance of one repetitive and persistent question which is common to many Bulgarians today: have we achieved what we struggled for?

    The quick answer is “yes.” In 28 years, we achieved almost all of the main goals that we had in the beginning of the 1990s: Bulgaria is now a NATO and European Union (EU) member and all of its citizens’ rights and freedoms are constitutionally guaranteed. Even if Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU —with an average monthly salary of only 420 dollars — the country has the fourth highest GDP growth rate in the EU. Technically, we live in a democracy with a poor but growing economy. Like Germany, we have elected for a third time the same conservative government, which could be seen as a sign of political stability. Nevertheless, something is terribly wrong with our achievement. The more we look democratized and stable, the worse are our achievements in the field of constructing a true civil society and true democracy.

    I want to speak about this discrepancy.

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  • The Authoritarian Challenge: The Concordance Between Trump And Putin

    Written on September 22, 2017

    Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and primary author of ASI’s Democracy Web civic education resource. This post was adapted from a longer essay, which can be found here.

    Since November 8, 2016, American citizens and international observers have faced a startling new situation. On that day, the United States, the longest continuous representative democracy in the modern world, elected the seemingly authoritarian-minded Donald J. Trump to a four-year presidential term. Trump, a man with little apparent knowledge of, experience in, or appreciation for either representative government or America‘s international treaties and alliances, promised to upend U.S. domestic and foreign policy and reshape the international order. He has succeeded.

    In the face of the decade-long rise of dictatorial leaders and nationalist and chauvinist parties in a number of countries around the globe, Trump’s election brought broad acknowledgement of a crisis of world democracy. Given its position and role in the world, the United States is now center stage in that crisis.

    One of the most troublesome aspects of the election was that the rules of the U.S. Constitution awarded Trump victory based on the preference of a minority of voters using an antique and unique electoral college system that overrode a substantial national vote margin in favor of the election’s loser. Notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s supposed unpopularity, the Democratic Party candidate won 2.85 million more votes in the national ballot, 48 percent to 46 percent, while Trump’s electoral college victory was determined in three decisive states by a total of 77,000 votes (out of 13.4 million). Putting aside that the results were influenced by foreign intervention (see below), the election process itself should be a cause for serious concern over the state of American democracy. For the second time in recent U.S. history, a national minority government has been imposed on the majority. No other democracy elects national leadership in such a manner. Yet, there is still little discussion of addressing this structural weakness in our political system.[1]

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