This post is contributed by LWVJ member Ann Fuller.

Let’s make democracy work by improving civics education in our schools and community.  Our future well-being depends on people sensibly cooperating for effective action and engaging in open debate.  Helping students learn to think critically, monitoring school programs,  and including young people in practical democracy are important steps for us to take to improve civics education.

An essential component of good citizenship involves evaluating advertisements, campaign speeches, proposed laws, news reports, and historical explanations.  Who is speaking?  What do they want from us?  How trustworthy are they?  Students need to acquire the “skills, inclinations, and self-confidence to participate as informed citizens in the electoral, legislative, judicial, and administrative processes of government.” (That’s the way The League of Women Voters of Kentucky makes this point).  Do note that this evaluation applies to candidates and ballot issues when we vote, as well as to understanding the world and formulating our opinions.

We need to know some things to analyze what we’re hearing.  These are concepts such as methods of argument, techniques of propaganda, and principles of democracy; stories from the past, of decisions and consequences; characteristics such as curiosity; and knowledge of geography, economy, ecology, and history.  Good teachers engage students in classroom instruction, discussion of current events and controversial issues, service learning, extracurricular activities that require collaboration for success, school governance, and simulations of democratic principles (and these practices are listed in the local social studies curriculum).

We have high expectations for civic education in the Juneau School District.  The introduction to the social studies curriculum (adopted in 2016) includes this overall aim:   “Perpetuate informed, involved, and contributing citizens who can make decisions based on democratic and culturally relevant principles, participate in public and intercultural affairs, who recognize, understand, and respect our unique society as Alaskan peoples.”  The curriculum describes civics as an integral part of social studies at all grade levels and mentions the courses required for high school graduation (Alaska History, American Government, American History, World History).

There are many organizations in our town that use Robert’s Rules of Order, conduct votes, and debate policy decisions.  These groups are engaged in civics education too.  Being an engaged citizen means paying attention and continuing to learn about the issues, forces, and people involved in public policy.  Some of the well-informed people are those who have studied and passed the naturalization test to become U.S. citizens, usually as adults.

Specifically, here are ideas to improve civic education in Juneau:

  1. Ask that teachers cover federal, state, tribal, and municipal governments.
  2. Teach history including the effects of protest movements and non-governmental organizations.
  3.  Involve our youth in discussions, decisions, and elections (yes, parents and aunts and uncles should bring young people to events and meetings).
  4. Build on the presence of government offices and agencies here to make our civics education superb.
  5. Encourage the state Department of Education & Early Development, the University of Alaska, and the Juneau School District to give teachers training and support, particularly in the area of social studies, government, and citizenship.
  6. Recognize that modern technology can help students analyze data and present findings, thus ensuring that civics education results in acquiring research skills.
  7. Publicize accomplishments in service learning, simulations such as Model United Nations, and student-led projects, including student government.  Let’s see photographs, statistics, and awards for civics education, as well as for sports.
  8. Offer opportunities for young people to experience research, campaigns, decision-making processes, and public information efforts in supervised, engaging service learning projects (this means placing students in the community to learn and willing community supervisors).

These are ways that all of us (parents, students, teachers, community members) can improve civics education by paying attention to what’s happening in our schools and by including youth in democratic activities.  Of course, active citizens are the best role models.

To give historical perspective, let’s remember that Thomas Jefferson made a similar argument in 1789, in a letter to George Wythe.  “I think by far the most important bill…is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people.  no (sic) other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness.”