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January 04, 2022 HUMAN RIGHTS

Yes to More Civics; No to More of the Same

by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca

Working as a social studies teacher for almost two decades, I have noticed a predictable and perennial pattern. A study is published showing some alarming deficit in the knowledge of people in the United States. Cue the calls for reform: “a return to the basics,” stricter standards, high school exit exams, more civics education. I enthusiastically endorse more civics, but it cannot be more of the same.

Too often, our curriculum teaches the Constitution as if it is a holy text (with the framers its prophets), that asks students to memorize what is legal more often than it asks them to grapple with what is just, and which privileges the mechanics of political institutions over the social movements that can transform them. It is a curriculum that tells students the meaning of citizenship rather than inviting them to be authors of its ongoing definition and redefinition. Not surprisingly, this is a civics education that can be standardized and tested, adding yet more millions into the corporate textbook and testing industries.

There can be no honest study of the U.S. political DNA absent the reprehensible strands in its helix. But there is no pristine moment—no uncontaminated DNA—to which we can return to escape the evil of the present. The civics we need more of provides students a clear-eyed understanding of U.S. founders and foundations, free of mythology and hagiography. It surfaces the lives and experiences of groups historically denied voice and power in U.S. politics: women, the enslaved, Indigenous Peoples, immigrants. It highlights activism—not just institutions or heroic individuals. It acknowledges that although our “political DNA” has never been worthy of a full, unqualified embrace, abolitionists, feminists, and labor organizers established a tradition of activism that is. It enjoins young people—and all of us—to act against injustice, providing historical and current examples of what that looks like. This is the civics I want more of and which I hope shows up in the classrooms of teachers across the nation.

The civics we need more of provides students a clear-eyed understanding of U.S. founders and foundations, free of mythology and hagiography.

The civics we need more of provides students a clear-eyed understanding of U.S. founders and foundations, free of mythology and hagiography.


What kind of Constitution would have resulted from founders who were more representative of the entire country—including enslaved people, workers, and farmers?

In my social studies classroom over the years, civics has often meant incorporating lessons and resources from the Zinn Education Project, a nonprofit committed to helping teachers teach a more accurate, complex, and engaging history than what is found in most textbooks. For example, civics has meant investigating the United States’ “political DNA” in a role play that upends the traditional narrative of the Constitutional Convention by including the perspectives of workers, enslaved people, and poor farmers, alongside those of the real participants—the white wealthy elite.

Civics has meant teaching the role of tribal sovereignty in the “political DNA” of the United States in a lesson about the Cherokee and Seminole Nations confronting the 1830 removal acts, and in a role play I co-wrote about the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Civics has meant reminding students that for most of the history of this country, excluding marginalized groups from the franchise was part of its “political DNA” by investigating the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and the Black struggle for voting rights during Reconstruction, 100 years later, and today.

Finally, civics has meant challenging students’ blind faith in our “political DNA” by introducing them to times when, if not for whistleblowers and lawbreakers, the unconstitutional use of state power would have proceeded unchecked, like the FBI’s war on the Black Freedom Movement and “The most dangerous man in America,” Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.

Yes, let’s teach civics. But let it be a civics that arms our students with an honest account of our nation’s political DNA so they may have the wisdom to actively transform it into one worthy of our embrace.

This article is adapted from “Teaching More Civics Will Not Save Us from Trump,” Sept. 10, 2018, Zinn Education Project.

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Ursula Wolfe-Rocca

High School Social Studies Teacher; Writer and Organizer, Zinn Education Project

Ursula Wolfe-Rocca has taught high school social studies since 2000. She is on the editorial board of Rethinking Schools and is a Zinn Education Project Writer and Organizer.