Civic education is poor in American schools, and it is playing a major role in the general populace’s ability to effectively participate in civil political discourse. In order to create generations of voters who are able to debate current events and issues in a productive manner, schools need to spend time actively teaching students how to engage in discussions with people whose opinions differ from their own.
If you are seeking out examples of the deterioration of political discourse, look no further than the current presidential campaign. Candidates stoop to unbelievable levels of immaturity while carelessly throwing around personal attacks. Donald Trump actually referred to Marco Rubio as “Little Marco” during a GOP debate, on top of so many other examples of incivility that I will not try to list them here. These juvenile actions turn the debates into meaningless brawls.
Not only are these squabbles embarrassing, but they also distract from the issues at hand and waste time that candidates should use to explain their views and plans. This ridiculous fighting, never mind the fact that the policies at stake are rarely discussed, draws in a demographic of inadequately educated voters.
People fight with others who have different opinions, refusing to meet on common ground in order to discuss the issue politely, but rather shutting down their arguments and disregarding any opinions differing from their own. Because civil debate is not taught in school, this cycle of idiocy continues.
The biggest obstacle for civic education is the uphill battle of maintaining political correctness. Students and teachers sometimes hesitate to have substantive political discussions for fear of offending students, parents or other faculty. Politically correct practices exist for a good reason. Minority groups need protection against disrespectful and hateful language and actions.
Concerns about political correctness should not end political discussions if implemented in a reasonable manner. Students must learn how to discuss controversial issues like immigration, abortion, minimum wage and police violence without the conversation devolving into a screaming match that drowns out the alternate opinion. If someone ends a political debate by saying “we can’t talk about this any more, that offends me,” they aren’t participating in mature discourse, or even doing a good job advocating their position. They merely push the conversation underground. Civic education would teach students would cure students of this habit.
Bringing politics into the classroom has its pitfalls. If a highly vocal teacher creates a syllabus with a political agenda in mind, they will use the time devoted to teaching political discourse force their views upon their pupils. This is especially dangerous for younger students with malleable political opinions.
It would be problematic in high schools as well, because when the opinions of students clashed with those of their teachers, they would waste valuable class time arguing over touchy political issues. Equally important but less inflammatory subjects would be left out. However, the majority of educators in this country are not in the classroom to spread political ideologies, but because they want to teach, period. The benefits of straightforward civic education in American classrooms far outweigh the potential complications that might come with such a curriculum.
For what percentage of your child’s education is the American education system responsible? If they come home knowing multiplication tables, under what conditions ‘i’ comes before ‘e’ and with a vague understanding of the Electoral College, the whole organization is considered a success.
Until every eligible voter in America graduates with the ability to participate in civil political discourse, the education system retains a gaping hole that will negatively impact our country for years.
Claire Mikulski ’19 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Western Springs, Ill. She majors in English.