You may have seen that in addition to reading and math scores, the Nation’s Report Card also noted a decrease in students’ history and civics scores. There’s certainly an argument for suggesting teaching less history (or less accurate history) directly impacts students’ understanding of civics, we would also argue that the absence of civic engagement in students’ real lives makes it harder for them to understand what civics looks like in the abstract.
“Civics” is defined simply as “a social science dealing with the rights and duties of citizens.” Merriam-Webster makes it sound so passive and separate — like watching clouds scuttle across the sky — but everything that makes up “civics” is personal and actionable. That’s why it’s often phrased as “civic engagement,” which implies deliberate, intentional interaction with the rights and duties bestowed upon us as citizens.
For too many people, civics begins and ends at voting (and not enough people do that, either). Or worse — ranting on social media. Not that there’s anything wrong with voicing one’s frustrations with government — it is a First Amendment protected right, after all — but metaphorically screaming into the void of the internet accomplishes little. And yet this is the example we have set for our young people: We sometimes show up for elections and post our complaints on Facebook or Twitter.
Civics, and by extension civic engagement, is meant to be so much more. It also means staying informed about what is happening in your town and your state and the nation at large; engaging in dialogue with elected officials; advocating for issues that are important to you; running for elected office or supporting someone who is; and exercising your rights, including the right to vote.
If Morgantown’s students want to see civics in action, they should look to what Protect Morgantown recently accomplished.
Protect Morgantown is an advocacy group that formed as a response to residents’ concern over a highly political gun store that was slated to open downtown. Members didn’t — and still don’t — want to ban gun sales in Morgantown, but they were worried about a gun shop opening its doors within walking distance of three schools and how it would look to visitors if a gun store is the first thing they see as they enter Morgantown.
Protect Morgantown presented to the Morgantown Planning Commission an application for zoning code changes that would limit where guns can be sold in the city and give the public greater input. The MPC agreed to support the amendments to code and send them to city council.
Whether or not you agree with Protect Morgantown’s stance or the MPC’s decision, you cannot deny that what the group did was a nearly perfect example of civic engagement. Instead of merely complaining, local residents came together, organized into a group, protested at the gun store’s proposed location, approached government officials and other stakeholders with their concerns, advocated for change, proposed a solution and kept with it until they got results.
If we want our kids to understand civics, that is the kind of example we need to set: Not just airing our complaints, but harnessing our desire for change into actionable steps to be taken to promote that change. That is what civics is about.