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Crisis in civics ed? Revival is under way.

In the face of a culture that promotes individualism, more high schools encourage debate and service.

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 26, 2006



If Todd Letimore ever thought the founding documents of the United States of America were simply pieces of history, he's long since left that notion behind.

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At the "Constitutional Convention" for Philadelphia's new Constitution High School, Todd and the rest of the inaugural ninth-grade class argued passionately as they set up the school's government. ("The only stipulation was they could not vote me out of office," Principal Thomas Davidson says with a laugh.)

His social studies class is like no class he's had before, Todd says. "We're actually interacting and learning – we actually get a chance to debate and say if we disagree, instead of just sitting there and writing all day."

Part of a growing network of history-focused high schools around the country, it's just one of the creative initiatives under way to equip young people to engage more effectively in American democracy.

Particularly with today's influx of immigrants, "it's important ... to provide some kind of unifying thread, so that students don't simply stay in their own ethnic enclaves ... but understand that there's a similarity among all groups and a shared knowledge of America's past," says Michael Serber, education coordinator at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York, a partner with Constitution High School. Improving history education is also a critical citizenship requirement, he says. "If you're going to deal with issues today, how can you not understand the issues from yesterday?"

According to a recent report, the lack of knowledge about US history, politics, and economics among college students amounts to a "crisis." That alarm sounds periodically, and it's spurring a wide range of responses – some of which simply give better opportunities to students whose civic impulses already run deep. For example:

•Legislation introduced recently in the US House and Senate would establish the nation's first Public Service Academy. Students at the college would have their education subsidized by the federal government in exchange for five years of service in government or nonprofit jobs after graduation. The idea came from former Teach for America participants Chris Myers Asch and Shawn Raymond.

•Texas Christian University in Fort Worth has established a Center for Civic Literacy, which brings together students, faculty, and community members to shape local public policy.

•The School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, recently joined a number of elite law schools by expanding its loan-forgiveness program for graduates who take public-service or advocacy jobs. The program covers up to $100,000 in debts for qualifying students.

•The New School, a university in New York City, just launched the Riggio Writing and Democracy Program. Undergraduate students in one of the courses next semester will write constitutional amendments and argue their merits before the class.

The latest group to examine college students' grasp of civics is the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), a nonprofit in Wilmington, Del., that promotes education about the nation's "founding principles." In a test of 14,000 college students, freshmen and seniors on average answered only half of the 60 multiple-choice questions correctly. The report recommends that more universities require such core courses as American history, political science, and economics. And it notes that students who take such courses are more likely to vote, volunteer, or join political campaigns.

"The study of the practice of democracy in our country ... is a foundational study that needs to be assured for every [college] student," says ISI senior vice president Michael Ratliff, a retired US Navy Rear Admiral. "We don't want a federal fiat that requires 'X' course ... but colleges and universities need to engage and ensure a balanced education."

Some educators, however, argue that the focus shouldn't be on multiple-choice tests, but on what citizenship skills students are taught that will last a lifetime. "There's nothing inherently wrong or right with core courses; it just depends on how they're conceived. If it's just simply throwing names and dates at them, most of that's going to disappear by the time they graduate," says Robert Polito, director of the Writing and Democracy Program at The New School.

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