The coronavirus pandemic presents a public health threat to the nation — but it may also offer an opportunity to mend its social fabric.
“We are living through the greatest civics lesson of our lifetimes right now,” wrote Martha Madsen, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute for Civics Education, in a recent letter to New Hampshire educators.
“I think we can see clearly how government works, or doesn’t work,” Madsen elaborated in a phone interview last week. “I think it’s really important to pay attention to the qualities of leadership that really are crucial in a crisis. And I think we’re seeing how the federal government interacts with state governments and with local governments.”
The lessons also are playing out, Madsen said, in the political debates about reopening the country and the public protests by those who oppose stay-at-home orders. It’s about “individual rights in balance with, or in conflict with, the greater good,” she said.
“Sometimes when you talk about these things, they sound very abstract and a little bit of a bore, but I think in this situation, it’s really very dramatic and clear.”
“This is really what government does, or should do, is provide that glue that kind of ties us all together and helps us resolve conflicts, helps us to face real difficulty in an ordered way that sort of minimizes damage,” Madsen said. “I think it’s a great opportunity, even though it’s a terrible event, to really pay attention to those things.”
So what exactly is civics education? “It’s learning about how government works,” Madsen said. “And it’s also learning about how individuals interact with the government and how individuals interact with each other to make positive changes in their communities.”
“It’s really about knowledge, skills and attitudes of good citizenship,” she said.
In New Hampshire, state law requires high school students to take at least a half-year of civics, and all students must take a civics test to graduate. Each school district can create its own test or use a test such as the U.S. citizenship exam, Madsen said.
But the testing law has “no teeth,” she said. “It doesn’t say if you fail, you have to retake it.”
At John Stark High School in Weare, civics students take the 100-question citizenship test twice — once at the beginning of the semester, then again after they’ve finished the curriculum. Students also can participate in the “We the People” program, a national civics curriculum that culminates in a competition before a panel of experts.
Dan Marcus, who has been teaching civics at John Stark for 15 years, also notes lessons in the current health crisis. “This is a great opportunity for students to really see that what they do has an impact,” he said.
“We’re all made equal by this virus,” Marcus said. “Whether it’s going to impact your personal health or somebody that you love, everybody is going to be impacted by this.”
Students have a role to play, he said. “It’s not just the adults who get to vote this time. It’s the kids, by staying at home or being responsible when they’re out, that are also participating every bit as much as the adults are.”
Marcus was a lawyer in Indiana before he became a teacher. He was a student teacher when the 9/11 attacks occurred, and he remembers having the sense that he and his students were watching history unfold. He has the same feeling now, he said.
NHICE’s Madsen said that ideally, civics education teaches students how to discuss controversial issues without acrimony: “Having it be a real conversation, not a shouting match or a personal attack,” she said.
That couldn’t be more important in today’s divisive political environment, she said. It’s essential, she said, “for maintaining the fabric of our society and our system of government.”
John Stark’s Marcus recalled the words of Thomas Jefferson: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
But 200 years later, Marcus said, too often in the national conversation “truth has become a fungible thing and people spin so much that it becomes very difficult.”
That’s why it’s critical to teach the younger generation “what evidence-based argument really is, how to understand ideas and how they can be challenged in a productive way,” he said. “I don’t think society is giving them a good model right now.
“If we don’t do it in the classroom, I think we’re really headed for some rocky times ahead,” he said.
Said Madsen: “I think our democracy is at stake here,” she said. “I really do.
“I don’t want to give up on it, and I don’t want young people to give up on it.”