Teach Civics Earlier

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Issue 16, Volume 110

By Grace Goldstein 

When I walked into my first government class a few months ago, I was certain I had some catching up to do. Ever since I had become a student activist, I felt painfully out of the loop on the details of government and lawmaking. Sure, I had learned some things on my own through experience and private research, but it couldn’t possibly stand up to the knowledge and understanding that a real class would give me. I was a little nervous—my smart, well-educated classmates were probably already experts somehow.

I was right about the fact that my first government course would immensely expand my knowledge of our political system and its history. I was wrong about the other part, though: my shakiness on aspects of the subject was unique. In the first weeks of class, we were assigned a project on our City Council Member. One of my classmates asked if we were to be assigned a City Council Member by our teacher. This speaks to a larger issue; it isn’t common knowledge among high school seniors that we are all assigned by the city itself a City Council Member based on the district we live in. Some of my other classmates were better informed than me, others hovered in similar territory, and still others had no in-depth knowledge whatsoever. But the fact that our collective knowledge was vastly dispersed so late in the educational game is unforgivable. Why aren’t the facts of how we’re governed—both locally and nationally—as ingrained in us as our multiplication tables? We are all affected by the decisions our government makes; housing and rent, race and gender discrimination, and wages and labor are just a few of the avalanche of issues that affect the average person. Both local and national government set precedents on these and other issues, start initiatives, and draft legislation that impacts us long before we turn 18 or become high school seniors mandated to take a government class. Every child and teenager in the country could benefit from getting a peek behind the civics curtain earlier in their education. I recall learning the same American mythology surrounding the Revolutionary War over and over throughout elementary and middle school, and yet I knew very little about the New York City Council before I started working and meeting with its members.

The fact of the matter is this: no matter how smart, interested, or engaged a student is, nothing can make up for an actual class on any subject. Government and civics are incredibly important subjects, which we should be learning in school before we become legal adults. Middle schoolers and high school underclassmen should have compulsory classes that give them the full picture of what makes our society tick. Teenagers should receive the tools to interpret what we see on the news as part of our education—and most importantly, the tools to advocate for ourselves and articulate our opinions in a political context. Knowing more about local politics could plant the idea to run for office in a high school student’s head. The sooner we learn everything about the system, the more accessible it can be.

Government, like history, economics, and ethics, is also worth teaching on its own merit. The subject matter is as interesting as it is essential. Government education combines explanations of legislation and political structure with the study of human behavior, campaign strategies, and global history that provide valuable context for all of our other historical knowledge. It teaches us the rights we have and the rights that still need to be fought for. Old triumphs and ongoing controversies come together in the government curriculum. Landmark Supreme Court cases explain to us the evolution of our country’s political culture through the decades. Our Constitution contains values that are worth defending regardless of their historical origin. All residents of the United States are meant to contribute to that living document. Every generation is a new editing team, working toward a “more perfect Union.” The sooner we read it and start talking about it, the better.

The Three Ring Circus Government Schoolhouse Rock video we're shown in fourth grade isn't enough. Schools should be teaching government as a core class years earlier in the curriculum. Limiting knowledge of what local and national government structures look like and keeping students removed from knowing how they work prevent confident civic engagement. We deserve to grow into voters with a strong basis for forming opinions about the politicians and legislation we support. Schools are obligated to give us a well-rounded education that will make us fully capable citizens. With civics put off until 12th grade, that’s not yet the case.