While education across the United States may require students to take government classes, don’t be fooled: The only thing most students learn is how to memorize the definitions of phrases like “checks and balances” without actually being able to apply these concepts to real life.
Education surrounding basic voting systems and processes is lacking, and furthermore, learning environments that create future generations of passionate and involved citizens are nonexistent. Now more than ever, with our country’s volatile political climate, it’s crucial that we redesign our civic classes to properly inform and inspire students to actively participate in democracy so that we can all have open conversations with one another.
I can still remember the government class the state of Maryland required I take in my junior year, during my time at an International Baccalaureate high school. At my school, the staff had decided the year-long government course was going to be crammed into a period of just two months so we could return to studying for our IB exams. We took a break from learning about the Cold War in China and Apartheid in South Africa and switched our focus over to the branches of government. What was supposed to be a course reflective of the innovative democratic processes and ideals of this country, was in reality six weeks of struggling to stay awake, repetitive memorization and a state exam my class passed without much effort spent.
After completing the exam and settling back into our normal class, that government course stayed on my mind. While I was happy to be returning to global topics and learning about different voices and narratives, I still had no real idea of how my own country functioned as a democracy and how I could be part of that system. Despite the fact I attended a school considered to have an above average social studies curriculum, when I finally reached legal voting age, I realized I was not prepared for this process in the slightest — whether that was registering to vote or researching candidates in local elections, I was lost and confused.
A national civics course should first provide students with a basic knowledge of various voting processes and laws, with an emphasis on voter registration and early voting, which varies state to state. With the upcoming 2020 presidential election, voting has been on everyone’s minds and misinformation about the voting process has appeared in conversations everywhere. Having a mandatory civics course that teaches students how to navigate registration, request mail-in ballots, thoroughly research and examine candidates and more, is something that shouldn’t be up for debate and needs to be implemented across the United States’ educational system.
Furthermore, the course should teach students how to thoughtfully communicate their own political ideas and respectfully engage with those whose views differ from their own. As we’ve seen under Trump’s presidency, the political extremes that divide us are having real consequences for the progression of society. Our ability to understand one another, converse with one another and engage in the democratic process has never been worse.
Although a civics course of some form should ideally be implemented at every level of education, a mandatory civics course for freshmen in college would be the best place to start. Colleges, far more than elementary or high schools, have greater resources and outreach to develop these courses and create a more politically involved environment. This, combined with the newfound independence that comes with the transition to college life, especially if students live out of state, means students require more information and assistance to stay politically involved.
For example, a freshman year civics course at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County would include information about basic democratic processes (like in-state vs. out-of-state voting), encourage political discussions between students and would involve students in outreach and service opportunities to get them involved in their political communities.
While it’s true that UMBC already has civics courses and political organizations available for students to take and join, such as the Center for Democracy and Civic Life and classes Talking Democracy (a 200-level seminar) and Be Your Best Self in Real Life (a 300-level seminar), these classes are only offered through UMBC’s Honors College and are geared more toward students who already have strong preexisting knowledge of our country’s democratic process.
A freshman year seminar should still be developed for students who may not have adequately received this education in their high school years because incoming college students need a strong base of civics education as they acquire greater democratic responsibilities and explore their own academic interests — not to mention, it would also further UMBC’s values of civic engagement.
If the U.S. ever wants to become the democracy it loves to imagine itself, engaging future generations in political processes is key. The crumbling and corrupt political systems that plague our nation can only be fixed by individuals and communities who are passionate about participating in politics, have the ability to dialogue with one another and have a solid educational background to do so.