Want civically aware adults? Start with civically active young readers

What does a well-rounded civic education look like? One California group has an answer that looks remarkably like the curriculum for high school journalism.

The California Task Force for K-12 Civic Learning, in a report issued Aug. 6 at the conclusion of a year-long study, declared a “crisis” in civic knowledge and participation, as measured by indicators that include declining interest in news and current events.

The 20-member task force of educators and community leaders traced the deficit to the devaluation of civics as an educational “afterthought” and to uninteresting curriculum that puts memorization of dry historical trivia ahead of mastering the skills of active participation.

What can be done? One recommendation — getting students involved in school governance and decisionmaking to create a culture that “embodies democratic values and principles” — is what journalism educators have preached for decades in urging schools to be more receptive to student criticism on the editorial page. Students will participate eagerly if their input is respected and valued. If their opinions are suppressed — and California has outstanding protections on paper that are honored unevenly in practice — the “lesson” is more enduring than any classroom lecture: Engaging with government is a waste of time because people in power don’t listen.

While students learn “how a bill becomes a law” abstractions in a traditional civics course — and those are important abstractions, to be sure — they actually engage with state and local government only once during the school day: In the newsroom. It’s there that students apply textbook concepts by researching — and then explaining to others — how a school board reaches a decision or a court adjudicates a lawsuit.

“Mock” and “model” civic programs are terrific, just like driver’s ed is terrific preparation for driving. But nothing replaces actually getting behind the wheel, and journalism is where students test-drive their democracy — if adult authority figures will relax and lend them the keys.

Read the California civics task force’s report and recommendations here.