By Bob Gibson
Educators are finding a few new ways to add civics back into schools that have seen a loss of emphasis for the subject dealing with the rights and duties of citizens.
Piece by small piece, Virginia educators are reviving the importance once given the study of history and democracy.
Public awareness of that need the past two years is reversing more than a decade of diminution of civics as STEM and other priorities ate away time and attention it was given, according to James Dillard, a former Republican delegate from Fairfax County.
A new emphasis has included civic readiness as a third “c” by adding it to career and college readiness in the state’s profile of a Virginia high school graduate, said Dillard, a recent member of the Virginia Board of Education.
The Virginia Commission on Civic Education this year added a statewide essay contest for high school seniors to demonstrate an understanding of the First Amendment.
Students from Arlington, Louisa and Augusta counties this month won small, cash prizes for their essays.
Elizabeth Kraisinger, a Yorktown High School senior from Arlington headed to the University of Virginia this year, won $500 and first prize.
A co-captain of Yorktown’s Public Forum Debate Team, she cited the Charlottesville demonstrations of August 2017 in her award-winning essay.
Some people criticize the First Amendment for allowing racist speech, she wrote. “However, the protections that allowed Nazis to gather in Charlottesville also allowed the March on Washington” and spurred major civil rights advances.
“The First Amendment was always meant to protect the people from the government,” Kraisinger asserted. “It is the responsibility of the people to sanction expression that hurts others,” she concluded.
Essays written by seniors from across the state were judged last month by members of the Commission on Civic Education and former civics teachers at Montpelier, home of James Madison, considered the father of the Constitution and the First Amendment.
Recent Louisa County High School graduate Zachary Heidel won a $250 check for his second-place essay.
Heidel, who also will attend UVA in the fall, said Americans today have more capacity to express themselves. “Today is a time of greater decentralization and individual freedom than any time previously, enabling society to harness the collective wisdom inherent in a diverse group of people,” he said.
Riverheads High School grad Jessica Milo won a $100 check for third place. In her essay, she cited the First Amendment’s value in protecting student protests against the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King’s championing of “the art of assembly and petition during his time,” and mass protests surrounding current issues such as abortion rights and guns.
Milo said these rights allow citizens to feel respected, heard and free as they raise voices to petition their government.
The contest promises to continue annually as the Secretary of Education’s Essay Challenge for Virginia and United States Government Students.
Attif Qarni, Virginia Secretary of Education, said the three contest winners demonstrated a deep understanding of how to be an active citizen and wrestle with complex social issues.
One of the essay judges, Meg Heubeck of UVA’s Center for Politics, said history and civic education should be infused with each other to provide our students with a story of how our Constitution protects our freedom.
Kraisinger said she is thrilled to be attending UVA in the fall and credits Yorktown teachers Diane Holland and Paige Hamrick for helping her understand the importance of the Constitution and becoming more civicly engaged.
“It’s so easy to fall into complacency, so it’s been incredibly inspiring to see those in my community and across the US exercise their rights and demand change,” Kraisinger said.
Holland, her debate coach, said her student demonstrates openness and respect for the views of others while actively engaging in the art of persuasion.
The state’s new essay contest “focuses students on one of the most important issues in civil society — the free exchange of ideas,” Holland said.
In a nation where politics can appear more dividing than productive, teaching civics adds value and values to the engagement that allows people to shape their future.
After all, the First Amendment and its guarantees of the free exchange of ideas, is what sets America apart from China and most of the rest of the world.
Gibson is communications director and senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Cooper Center for Public Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the Cooper Center. He is also a member of the Virginia Commission on Civic Education.