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Are Skidmore students literate in politics and government? Lessons in democracy
Students rock the vote New voters, new media, new energy
Road to the White House Melissa Winter '89 staffs the First Lady
McCain-Obama: Fair fight? Reviewing the 2008 presidential race
Growing the grassroots Scott Kennedy '87 films urban citizen action



 

 

Civics quiz: Are Skidmore students literate in politics and government?
by Barbara Melville

When the good times roll, democracy is easy to take for granted. It’s hard times that remind a democratic nation of the need for good citizens, preferably the kind with a solid working knowledge of our roots and rights and a will to preserve them.

According to a recent report by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, most of us would get pink-slipped from the “informed electorate.” Seventy-one percent of Americans flunk the ISI’s online civics quiz
(average score: 49). About the same percentage of Americans look to the nation’s schools and colleges to remedy the situation. And a regional newspaper’s inauguration-day editorial, mentioning “the propensity of our youth to treat learning history like a trip to the dentist,” urged teachers “to make the normally dull subjects of history and civics meaningful to students.” As American studies major Elena Milius ’10 puts it, “I believe that if you’re going to live in a society, if you’re going to wave its flag proudly—or not—and call it home, then you must take the time to learn about its foundation and its complexity.” Across the nation, colleges and universities are indeed stepping up their programs in civic education, according to Skidmore’s Responsible Citizenship Task Force.

What exactly is “civics” nowadays? According to the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services, it’s a basic familiarity with the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the country’s economic system. Maxine Isaacs ’69, a Skidmore trustee who has worked for national politicians and taught politics, would add “a knowledge of current affairs” to the list. And Beau Breslin, a government professor and assistant dean of the faculty who directs Skidmore’s First-Year Experience program, calls for “a knowledge of history and government, business and economics, and sociology.” And more: “Not just knowledge, but a sense of shared values and responsibility.” Bundle all these together and you get “civic literacy”—a password to the “informed and responsible citizenship” that Skidmore’s strategic plan highlights as a primary part of its mission.


How does Skidmore teach civics? Technically, it doesn’t. According to Tim Burns, of the government faculty, “Important as it is, citizenship is a by-product, not an end, of liberal arts education.” The Citizenship Task Force’s most re­cent report concurs, “A liberal education broadly prepares students for citizenship.” How broadly? Flip through the 2008–09 catalog and without even trying you can count more than 50 courses that fall into the civic-savvy bin. To imbue the knowledge, skill, and determination to keep the nation on an even keel, colleges tap disciplines across the board: social sciences and natural sciences for how to examine problems, find causes, and synthesize solutions; arts and humanities for ethical decision-making and creative ways to stimulate public discourse; preprofessional programs for organizational skills… “In many respects, every class on campus offers something to this enterprise,” says Breslin. “Liberal arts is a great conduit for responsible citizenship.”

Through that conduit flows an array of foundation courses available from the departments of history, government, and American studies, starting with Government 101 (the Constitution, the presidency, Congress, and the judiciary). Dozens of others zero in on the courts, political process, American history from Colonial times to the present, foreign policy, environmental policy, race and ethnicity, civil liberties, public administration, international law, US material culture, anti-Americanism, American political thought, and the psychology of politics. There’s even a course titled “What the United States Does Wrong in the World.”

Disciplines as diverse as philosophy, economics, education, social work, and business offer specialized perspectives on everything from the nation’s psyche to its pocketbook to its public policy, including “Economics of Income Distribution and Poverty,” “The Classical World” (for roots of political theory), and “Social Policy and Social Justice.

“There are many ways Skidmore brings civic awareness to the table,” says Student Government Association president Jackie Shydlowski ’09, a government major whose own civic learning curve included spearheading a rewrite of SGA’s outdated constitution. “Across the curriculum you see connections that are not always obvious,” she says, pointing to such examples as the First-Year Experience common reading of Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains; a graphic-arts class that last fall created get-out-the-vote posters; and MB 107, the cornerstone management and business course, whose lessons include “how to work cooperatively in a competitive setting.” Her favorite was a government course in American Indian politics and policy, which she says “opened my eyes to things I didn’t learn in high-school civics. That was when the stories from elementary school got real.”

That unfolding of understanding through stories makes sense to Ron Seyb, a Skidmore government professor. He says, “In first grade, kids can cognitively assimilate only mock elections and stories about the president. In higher grades, it’s the mechanics of Congress and stories of great Americans and big historical events. At the college level, the stories get more complex—Martin Luther King, the making of the Civil Rights Act—and it’s about mechanics plus meaning: Why does this story matter?” College-level civic education also changes from discrete course content to a bright thread of awareness that turns up throughout the curriculum, wherever students wrestle with real-world issues. Seyb might, for in­stance, ask his students to ponder whether President Obama will grow in office, as Lincoln did, or stay as static as Carter. We don’t yet know, he admits, but that wasn’t a trick question, because “comparable situations have happened before—it’s important to give kids a placement in time, historical reference points that can help us understand what might happen now.”

Seyb notes too that “our kids want to do the right thing—improve civil rights, stop genocide. What I have to teach them is that there are complications, constraints, and usually two or three valid sides to each argument. I want them to look deeper and make the case, not just take what seems like the morally right path.“

College civics gets extra-interesting because students are of age to vote and because faculty often find creative ways to teach. Winston Grady-Willis, Skidmore’s director of intercultural studies and a member of the American studies faculty, observes, “For the most part, the educational system in this country has embraced a woeful lack of sophistication about history and politics. We stick to the tried-and-true mythology about the country. It’s why students tune out history and social studies unless they have a good teacher early on—like my eighth-grade civics teacher, Mr. Maleconi—to shake things up.”

To open up Barack Obama’s early memoir, Dreams From My Father, for his students in “The African-American Experience 1860s–1980s,” Grady-Willis chalked six numerals on the board and told his class, “Pick out six key themes, or ‘keepings,’ from Obama’s book and we’ll discuss them. Who wants to go first?” He scribbled rapidly on the board as his students called out “crisis of identity,” “role models,” “interracial relationships,” and more. Hands shot up as students remarked on how the young Obama, even when named the first African-American editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, went “back and forth between white life and black,” fearing rejection from both. Class discussion widened to touch on racial intermarriage and the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia that made it legal, as well as Obama’s parents and role models and some of the students’ own. The president’s memoir fits right in with other course materials like Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi and Mi Familia, a 1995 film about a Chicano family, all chosen because they show “grassroots individuals as agents of their own history,” says Grady-Willis.

In the first-year seminar that alumna Maxine Isaacs teaches in presidential election years at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, she pairs up her students and assigns each team to the in-depth study of a single American election between 1960 and 2008. Each duo offers expertise on that election when the class takes up such topics as the impact of the press, the role of the Electoral College, and campaign organization. Outside class, Isaacs says, “I’m one of those people who follow politics every day, because I think it’s important and interesting and fun. There’s nothing wrong with finding politics entertaining.”

Even courses in early history can spark some electricity between then and now. Natalie Taylor teaches a Skidmore government course called “The American Party System” that spotlights five presidential elections notable for marking major party realignments. A week after the Obama inauguration, Taylor’s class tackled the election of 1800, the first in which there were two candidates, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, backed by opposing political factions. Contemporary parallels popped up when a student pointed out that in his farewell address, George Washington admitted to having made mistakes in office, as did Obama when he made news by saying, “I screwed up.” The connections and comparisons are “endless,” says government and history major David Leibovitz ’09. For him, “understanding why and how historical events occurred sheds light on issues today.”

Lights get lit often in her classes, says Taylor, because the philosophical questions that occupied the framers of the Constitution—such as “what is natural for human beings and what is the best government for them”—continue to crop up in our own lives. Hamilton, a Federalist, thought strong government best, to rein in the greed and ambition of “the un­thinking populace,” but the election went to Jefferson, who held that human beings are inherently independent, equal, and good. The crucial election was both historical and—in its battling of political parties followed by an orderly transfer of power—as contemporary as the note left by the outgoing Bush in an Oval Office desk drawer for the incoming Obama.

To fully appreciate the stakes of the 2008 vote, “you have to understand history,” says Jennifer Delton, who teaches history herself. (Breslin agrees, pointing out that Skidmore students celebrated election night with an exuberant march downtown not because they had just come out of a civics class but because they understood Obama’s win as a giant step toward absolving the nation’s long-ago “original sin” of slavery.) Last semester Delton says her students were “interested in the Vietnam War as a comparison to the Iraq invasion, and in McCarthy-era parallels to today’s post-9/11 tensions between freedom and security. They were asking ‘What is my country doing?’ and ‘Have we been here before?’” The answers to questions like that lie not only in civic education but in the breadth and depth of liberal arts knowledge; after all, the big questions of civics are the big questions of liberal arts. As Delton puts it, “History is a way by which men and women come to understand who they are as human beings.” Taught this way, civics not only serves but soars.


Constitutional exercises

Want to know if you’re up to snuff on the history, heritage, and current state of your nation?
Take a quick test.

Need remedial assistance? Print and study these flash cards.

For up-to-the minute news—history on the hoof—check out the Constitution Center , and for daily
House and Senate schedules, issues, committee work, and more, click here.

Or read a book, talk some politics, do community service, run for office. As Edmund Burke once said, “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.” —BAM