Give civics its due


Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School now requires seniors to take a civics course.

The course, which will be taught in a lecture hall format in the school’s Performing Arts Center, will tackle issues like climate change, government and politics, human rights, civil rights, globalization, global economies, and even some Island history related to civics.

The course culminates in a school giveback day, where students involved in the course create an action plan to give back to the Island community in whatever way they can.

In 2018, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law that mandates a civics-based project for eighth graders and high school students, but the law stops short of making it a graduation requirement. According to Education Week, the projects “may be individual, small group, or classwide,” and “should be designed to help students make logical arguments and support claims, and to understand the connection among federal, state, and local policies, including those that affect their own communities.”

The state law also requires civics classes to teach students “how to analyze written and digital media,” creates a fund to provide professional development for teachers; and establishes a voter registration challenge for high school seniors. 

In an email to The Times, MVRHS Principal Sara Dingledy wrote that the law was not the impetus for the high school course, which should build on Island students’ engagement with civics. Dingledy wrote that the course “aligns well” with the new law, though she expects students “will engage in at least one civics project before senior year, probably in eighth grade, and then at times during their [high school] coursework.”

The reaction to our story about the MVRHS civics course, written by reporter Lucas Thors, was a mixture of “hear, hear,” “it’s about time,” and “let’s hope it’s not an indoctrination.”

Put us firmly in the camp of “hear, hear.”

A commentary published in the Wall Street Journal in March, titled “America Needs History and Civics Education to Promote Unity,” was signed by six former U.S. education secretaries who served under presidents of both parties —  Lamar Alexander, Arne Duncan, John King, Rod Paige, Richard Riley, and Margaret Spellings.

“Following years of polarization and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the world’s oldest constitutional democracy is in grave danger. We stand at a crossroads, called to protect this democracy and to work toward unity,” the education secretaries wrote. “Current and future generations will look back to examine how we chose to act, and why. A key part of our task is to reinvigorate teaching and learning of American history and civics in our nation’s schools. A constitutional democracy requires a citizenry that has a desire to participate, and an understanding of how to do so constructively, as well as the knowledge and skills to act for the common good. Yet a history and civics education for the 21st century must also grapple with the difficult and often painful parts of our history — including enslavement, segregation and racism, indigenous removals, Japanese-American internment, denials of religious liberty and free speech, and other injustices. We need teaching and learning that pursues an account of U.S. constitutional democracy that is honest about the wrongs of the past without falling into cynicism, and appreciative of the American founding without tipping into adulation. To turn pluribus into unum, we need curriculums that achieve a more plural and complete story of U.S. history, while also forging a common story, the shared inheritance of all Americans.”

We have far too many people getting their news and information from social media, podcasts, and unreliable or biased news sources. We don’t need or want the sugarcoated version of civics that we had in the ’50s and ’60s.

We’re hopeful the MVRHS course will provide a roadmap for students to stay engaged, find reputable sources of information, and demonstrate for them the type of critical thinking skill that rank facts ahead of conspiracy theories and opinion. After all, many of the young people in the class are already eligible to vote, and most, if not all, of the students will be of voting age by the time they graduate. (By the way, civics teachers: Remind these students that their votes can make the most difference in town elections and at town meetings.)

While STEM education — science, technology, English, and mathematics — has been the focus of our public education for the past couple of decades, and is important, history and civics have been neglected for too long.

In announcing the new course, social studies department chair Olsen Houghton noted that members of the community will be brought in to help with the seminar-style course — scientists from Woodwell Climate Center, sustainability experts at Island Grown Initiative, and civil rights activists from the M.V. chapter of the NAACP among them. 

We commend MVRHS for putting together a program that integrates the community in helping to teach this vitally important subject. 


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