Politics & Policy

Civics V. Citizenship

Traditional civics education is in trouble.

For some time in U.S. schools, traditional civics education has been on the defensive. Many social-studies educators think the study of basic governmental principles is “dry.” They shrink from civics that is openly patriotic, calling it propaganda. But while they worry about “mindless” nationalism, they eagerly advocate a reformed vision of citizenship by the textbooks they choose.

These curriculum planners say that the time to “demystify” government courses is overdue. Civics education should be “practical” and “empowering.” Lessons should emphasize individual and group rights. Content should highlight the here-and-now and the close-to-home. These ideas are often mixed with the rhetoric of “minority needs.”

What educators term “street law” is an increasingly popular high-school alternative to traditional civics. It is a concept endorsed by the American Bar Association’s public-education program, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Education Association.

Venal publishers cater to any bankable curriculum trend. As a result, an alternative “government” textbook, Street Law: A Practical Guide to the Law, is now in its sixth edition.

The 680-page volume, published by Glencoe, the high-school division of McGraw-Hill, is sold to school districts across the country. One of Glencoe’s bigger sellers in social studies, it is the most prominent and successful textbook of its kind.

This success comes at a time when established civics textbooks are going out of print at an alarming rate. In state after state, world-cultures curricula that tend to be multicultural in outlook are replacing civics requirements. Junior high-school teachers today can choose from three standard civics textbooks on the market, down from a dozen or so ten years ago. Claiming to be a step forward, Street Law replaces conventional civics with a bleak world of torts, liability, rights, entitlements, discrimination, and self-expressive lifestyles. Such content, publishers say, applies directly to teenagers’ lives. But the operative culture that wafts up from the text is dreary and atomized, litigious and drained of civic appeal.

In Street Law, the nation’s political principles almost disappear. Tomorrow’s American, as the book sees it, needs to know how to navigate courts and public bureaucracies, to protest, and to avoid victimization. The “skills” that Street Law promotes seem designed to appeal to hard-pressed urban school administrators where students’ lives are likely to be entwined with the criminal-justice system and public services.

Street Law contains much practical information. It explains how to deal with landlord violations and register complaints to government authorities. It explains abortion law and asks loaded questions about abortion rights and then some. (“Assume that a private organization wants to distribute condoms at a high school…”) It tells you what to do if you’re arrested. It includes toll-free numbers for credit-card companies.

The section called “Rights in the Community” takes up 256 pages, more than one third of the text. This many-chaptered section is a serial guide to overcoming discrimination in all forms. It concludes with a special section on gay rights.

The book’s most depressing unit is called “Family Law.” The chapter on marriage covers common-law marriages, community property, prenuptial agreements, whether or not to keep a maiden name, and “spouse abuse.” The book focuses on what to do if spouse abuse should occur.

“An estimated four million women are abused each year,” Street Law declares, working from the premise that spouse abuse is evenly distributed among all U.S. classes and groups. Abuse ranges from “psychological” to “severe battering and murder.”

The following chapter is titled “Legal Rights of Single People Who Live Together.”

The “Family Law” unit also covers palimony, paternity, same-sex partners, divorce, custody, and child abuse. The section ends with a detailed guide to government benefits.

Street Law strongly encourages citizen activity, or more precisely, a certain kind of juvenile activism. As if to anchor the textbook’s politics, so-called YouthAct boxes are scattered throughout, urging student-led community campaigns against such social vices as smoking and child abuse.

If the civics embodied in Street Law becomes standard–and many teachers are headed in this direction–students will not learn about federalism, how a bill becomes a law, or how presidents are elected. Lofty abstractions such as equal protection will also fade, replaced by tips on working the law and the “system” to advance a cause or self-interest.

Street Law is more than a bad book. Its content and the educational thinking behind it represent a basic challenge to citizenship. Its civics no longer expects students to act as citizens of a republic. Instead, young people are taking instruction as members of factions, clients of the state, and subjects of the lawyer class.

Gilbert T. Sewall is director of the American Textbook Council.

Gilbert T. Sewall is currently a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Since 1989, he has been director of the American Textbook Council in New York City. Sewall is a former history ...


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