The other day my son was practicing his guitar playing with a new music book and came upon Samuel Francis Smith’s “America (My Country, ’Tis of Thee),” you know the 1832 patriotic song that is not “America the Beautiful” and whose melody is the same as England’s “God Save the Queen”? That song, by the way, served as this country’s de facto national anthem for a century before “The Star Spangled Banner” garnered that title in 1931.
I asked him if he knew the song. He did not.
Along with other school children of his generation and older, the diminished music education in public schools over the past few decades accounts for a loss of a common musical history of this country.
Okay, so kids today are more likely to belt out Frozen’s “Let it Go” than “Home on the Range.” No big deal, right? However, with the loss of arts education there has also occurred a loss of civics education.
Schools years ago used to teach civics, “the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how government works” per the Merriam-Webster website—in other words, what it means to be an American citizen and more important how to participate in the process.
The fact that only one out of every five 18- to 29-year-olds vote makes one ponder if the lack of civics education has anything to do with such a low turnout.
With the decades’ long focus on math and English skills, knowledge in other areas have been neglected. Most children earn high school diplomas without understanding how this country operates or why it matters. This lack of awareness ultimately atrophies into apathy.
We know about the achievement gap, the disparity between skills of whites and nonwhites. Call this one the American gap.
The New York Times reports that “students are woefully deficient in their understanding of how government works” but that “the study of American government and democratic values is making a comeback.” Unfortunately, that was published in 1987.
Recent efforts to resurrect civics courses and/or mandate that students take the U.S. Citizenship test have occurred in North Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts, and Tennessee.
But with the Common Core curriculum in full swing, chances are that little will change. This is a mistake especially when considering that the majority of children in America’s public schools are from minority groups, the very groups who need to know civics since their interests would benefit the most from their involvement.
It is not so much the common math and common grammar that binds a people together; rather, it is the common culture.
One of the main charges of public schools used to be teaching children from a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds the history of the United States as a way to bind their values, assisting them in assimilation.
With one-third of students in the L.A. Unified School District labeled as English Language Learners, meaning their parents are not from this country, isn’t it critical that these children learn about the land in which they live and will eventually prosper? The nation needs their full participation and not just them earning money and being consumers.
Knowing how government operates, knowing how individuals make up the government and do affect change are not insignificant factoids reserved for an obscure elective class.
Mandating civics courses in public schools would help unite a growing disjointed population. Just as students need to take health classes for their own personal well-being, they should take civics as part of their duty as citizens. We all benefit from an informed citizenry.
This week Gov. Brown signed a mandatory vaccination law because “immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community.” Making students learn about their country as part of their education will protect the community as well.