Citizenship, political science, history, geography...All of these are part of civic education. KSMU's Missy Shelton explores opportunities for students to pursue civic education outside the traditional classroom and how schools integrate citizenship and other aspects of civic education into their curriculum.
Shelton: Civic education...schools teach political science, geography, history, economics...they're also teaching students about citizenship, the importance of participation, how to be active members of our democracy. Some teachers say that with emphasis being placed on student achievement in core areas like math, science, and reading, there's less time to teach social studies. And even in school districts where there is a concerted effort to spend more time on civic education, it's simply not enough for students who have a strong interest in this area. To meet the needs of those students, Missouri State University each summer offers high school students from all over the state the opportunity to attend the Missouri Public Affairs Academy. This summer, 40 students will participate. Candace Fisk is director of the academy...She's also assistant professor in the College of Education...I recently spoke with her about the academy and how it helps students understand their role in a democratic society.
Fisk: I do think it fills a niche. Our society and maybe rightfully so has put huge emphasis in our educational system on science and math. Sometimes it's been such an emphasis that the social studies, especially civic education has become less of an emphasis in some public schools. So, I'm pleased that this is an opportunity to promote civic engagement that may not happen in some school settings. I would say the goal is for the students to walk away from the academy with a better understanding of how they can be more engaged citizens, that civic engagement is not theory or book learning but it's something that we practice in our lives. And these kids are definitely old enough to be engaged.
Shelton: And these are juniors and seniors?
Fisk: Right, incoming high school juniors and seniors.
Shelton: Why is the academy so important? Are these lessons that they're sometimes not getting in their public school setting?
Fisk: I would say that many times a civics course in a traditional high school curriculum does emphasize helping students understand the structure and function of government but sometimes can fall short of helping students understand their role not only in the political process but in society as a whole as an engaged citizens. Too many times, I think students and even adults define the rights and responsibilities of citizenship as just going to the polls and voting. While that's extremely important, an engaged citizen does much more than vote. So, I would say that the emphasis of the academy on personal commitments to understanding issues in society and finding ways to be involved is what might set it apart from a traditional curriculum in a high school classroom.
Shelton: It's interesting you say it's more than simply voting and yet in many cases, people don't even do that. As far as how you structure the academy, what topics are you covering?
Fisk: The academy looks at citizenship from several different angles. We do look at the political process. We have speakers come in from both major political parties. We look at government structure. We take a day and go to Jefferson City and look at the three branches of government. But we also look at other types of engagement issues like what is the role of media, how a citizen can be a good consumer of all that's out there in the media and how these young people make their voices heard maybe use the media in advocacy activities. We also have an international piece where we look at how students can be informed and involved in international issues like the AIDS crisis or the land mine issue. So, it's a little bit of a shotgun approach in that we do cover several different topics but by the end of the week, the students are connecting the dots and seeing that there are many ways to be engaged in their communities. We do try to make it practical too. We identify what we call a focus issue for the academy also so that as we discuss the different kinds of civic engagement, the kids can see how it applies with a real social issue. Last year and this year both we've used poverty-related issues. In addition to speakers about government and civic involvement in theory, we have some speakers that come in and talk about what poverty looks like in a community, how it effects schools or other parts of society. Then the students do a couple of service projects that contribute to some of the problems related to poverty. There's a hands on, let's get out and make a contribution aspect to the academy also.
Shelton: A lot of times young people, particular high school students get a bad rap for not being engaged, for not wanting to get involved yet in the academy, I think you see just the opposite.
Fisk: Just the opposite. That may be because students who are interested in spending 10 days on the university campus at an academy like that are by definition who already have somewhat of an interest in being involved. We've had a lot of feedback from academy students in the last couple of years who have left eh academy with the motivation to go back to their communities and organize food drives, become engaged in the political process. I know last year, the hurricanes hit on the Gulf Coast shortly after the academy ended. There was a flurry of activities that I saw through emails from academy students who were organizing fundraising efforts. Even some went down and volunteers time. So we have reports that the kids are going back and practicing what we preached at the academy.
Shelton: You mentioned the poverty issue but sometimes your discussions focus on very controversial issues. Some people might wonder if high school students can handle those politically, emotionally-charged discussion.
Fisk: They can. And there is of course a caution about their maturity level but they're more mature than adults might realize. They have access to just a lot of information. So when they approach a topic that can be controversial...this year, we're going to have Dr. Nietzel talk about issues related to the death penalty. These kids can sink their teeth into it. One of the collateral benefits we didn't plan but we saw last year was that the students did an amazing job of approaching controversial issues and disagreeing without becoming disagreeable. They were able to discuss the issues at the level of ideas and not let the discussion fall into personal attacks. So, these 16, 17, 18 year olds do have enough maturity to address the issues.
Shelton: Perhaps there's a lesson there for adults to learn about civil discourse. You mention that you plan to have a discussion about the death penalty. Do the facilitators in any way push a particular viewpoint?
Fisk: No. As a staff, our view is to facilitate conversation but to not express our own views. We want to the students to come to their own understanding and develop their own opinions based on information without the adults in the room telling them what to think. Our staff is trained in that, how to facilitate conversations and make sure both sides of an issue come out. That's part of the design of the academy.
Shelton: Back to this issue of civil discourse. Is it difficult to teach students how to do that, disagree without being disagreeable, given what we sometimes see on cable news programs.
Fisk: There are ways to do that. Part of it is how you frame the conversation. Instead of saying, "What do you think?" The conversation is usually phrased as "What are the arguments in favor of? And what might a person with an opposing argument say?" So you talk about both sides as if they are equally justifiable without personalizing it. They really respond to that. It's a little freeing. It's less threatening to talk about an issue if you're not saying, "I believe this. I believe that." But you talk about arguments in favor and against and then the students can dialogue without feeling threatened or personalizing it too much.
Shelton: In terms of the big picture, why is it important to have young people who are pursuing these kinds of interests and who want to know how to become a better citizen?
Fisk: I think the answer to that is not limited to young people. Our entire citizenry needs to have an approach that our society is truly a community of individuals. If young people or adults have a view that all your activities is only to promote themselves and their own self interest, it's not going to be to the benefit of society. I give kudos to the university for sponsoring a program like this for this age group. It speaks about what our university's public affairs mission is to begin with: being a citizen is more than voting. It is being involved regardless of what your vocation is or your political persuasion. Our society works best when we work together to approach our problems.
Shelton: What are some of the comments you hear back from students after this experience?
Fisk: The comments have been extremely positive. In fact, last year was my first year as director and I didn't know what to expect and I was very pleased. The students felt that they had had their eyes open to some issues they had not been exposed to before. They commented on what we've just spoken of...They were really engaged by dialogue among people of differing views that did not become personalized. I think the reason they were so interested in that is because of what you just said...They see so much in the media. The testimonials we've had since the academy ended last year of kids going back and becoming more active in their own schools and communities. That shows the academy met its goals.
Shelton: As for what the students who participate in the academy have to say...Here are comments from Sophie Zevalia and Andrew Fogle who spoke to KSMU during the academy last summer, particularly about the importance of disagreeing without being disagreeable.
Shelton: I've been speaking with Candace Fisk, director of the Missouri Public Affairs Academy at Missouri State University. Our conversation about civic education and teaching teenagers about citizenship is available online at KSMU dot org.