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Grant Bosse: Teaching civics is not a math quiz

By GRANT BOSSE
November 13. 2017 10:44PM


Everything we teach in schools is a civics lesson.

That was the lesson University of Ottawa Professor Joel Westheimer gave to a group of 50 New Hampshire middle school teachers at the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord.

“Everything you learn in school and how you learn it is a lesson in what kind of person you’re going to be in this world,” Westheimer argued.

Westheimer said there was a crucial difference between the goals of education in a democracy and in a totalitarian regime.

“Of course, we all want kids to know how to add numbers, but we also want them to know what those numbers add up to, and how those numbers connect to their lives,” Westheimer said.

Westheimer said it is even more important for students in a democratic society to connect what they learn in the classroom to the outside world. He argues students should be taught to think critically and question authority in every subject, not just in social studies classes.

Westheimer was the keynote speaker at a day-long workshop for middle school teachers titled “What Kind of Citizen? Educating Middle School Students for the Common Good”, hosted by the New Hampshire Institute for Civics Education.

The nonpartisan group is hardly a cesspool of left-wing radicalism. Former Congressman Chuck Douglas and Union Leader Publisher Joe McQuaid are on the board. In fact, it was the boss who brought Westheimer’s lecture to my attention.

Westheimer is cofounder and executive director of Democratic Dialogue, a group of left-wing academics “committed to the critical exploration of democratic ideals in education and society through a program of international collaborative research and dissemination.”

Listed first among the group’s “Principal Investigators” is William Ayers, the University of Illinois-Chicago professor better known as the founder of the terrorist group, the Weather Underground. Ayers admits to participating in several bombings in the ‘70s, including NYPD headquarters, the U.S. Capitol building, and the Pentagon. In 1974, prosecutors dropped all charges because some of the evidence against Ayers had been gathered illegally.

Ayers resurfaced in Chicago as an adviser to Mayor Richard M. Daley and an early supporter of Barack Obama’s first campaign for the Illinois Senate.

This is not the kind of civic engagement New Hampshire should be teaching. The Institute did not know of Westheimer’s ties to Ayers when it invited him.

Even if we forgive Westheimer his willing association with an admitted terrorist, the premise of his approach to civics education is flawed. Students should learn to be active citizens, in social studies. In math class, they should learn math.

If John has six apples, and Juanita has three apples, is the apple gap due primarily to America’s inherent racism or sexism?

Inserting politics into other academic subjects devalues education. It also teaches a skewed lesson about the place of politics in our lives. Science, literature, and other subjects might sometimes overlap with social studies, but should not be consumed by them.

Fortunately, there are better ways to teach this important subject.

In October, New Hampshire Sunday News reporter Shawne Wickham sat in on the “We the People” class at Milford High School. Dave Alcox has won national awards for teaching civics. He gets his students passionate about the First Amendment, search and seizure, and other topics central to the challenges we face in a free society.

Some elementary, middle, and high schools across New Hampshire are ramping up their civics curriculum, in part because of new state requirements. But there’s also renewed dedication from parents and teachers to instill America’s democratic ideals into the next generation of citizens.

Columnist Jonah Goldberg often quotes political theorist Hannah Arendt as saying “Western civilization is invaded by barbarians every generation. We call these barbarians ‘children.’”

Civics is how we civilize these barbarians. Let’s not forget to teach them reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic while we’re at it.

Grant Bosse is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News.


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