GOVERNMENT and civics classes have a reputation for being dry. This means that too many students forget what they have been taught. Two-thirds of Americans could not name all three branches of government, according to a survey published in 2015. Only one-third could name a single Supreme Court justice, or identify Joe Biden as the then-vice president.
Civics has been in decline in schools for decades, says Peter Levine of the Centre for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. It has been pushed aside by a focus on preparing workers for the marketplace with “core” subjects, especially science, technology, engineering and maths. But the idea that it was the responsibility of schools to teach students about politics and democracy flourished well into the second half of the 20th century. It was based on the belief, as promulgated by Horace Mann, who fought for universal education in the 19th century, that education is “our own political safety”. Across the country, pupils took classes like “Problems of Democracy,” a popular post-war civics course in which they were expected to read the newspaper and debate issues in the classroom. But by the 1980s, it had been phased out. Parents and politicians became concerned about schools “politicising” the classroom. Schools, eager to avoid controversy, sanitised their curriculums. Since then courses on government have remained common, but most offer little more than rote study of the structures of government.