Recently, the Ontario government floated the idea of scrapping the mandatory half-credit that is grade 10 civics class, where high school students are supposed to learn what it means to be a Canadian citizen. Is this a good idea, or is civics class something that is integral to our education system?
Time to scrap civics class and start over
Let’s face it, current civics class are hopelessly limited in scope. Half a semester is simply too short to adequately discuss the subject, and the classes themselves inevitably boil down to rote learning and regurgitation of facts, rather than learning how to be an active citizen.
But the shortcomings of civics class is just a symptom of a larger problem in our education system in general.
For example, civic literacy shouldn’t be consigned to just one class. In science class you should be discussing the politics of climate change. In arts classes you should be discussing the political power of art, and so on.
Furthermore, there are several other subjects that don’t get nearly enough attention in high school. Health classes, for instance, are sandwiched into gym class, and there isn’t even a class required on basic critical thinking.
Given the high-tech world in which we live, the appalling lack of scientific literacy among Canadians is just as frightening as a lack of civic literacy. Just think of the unvaccinated children dying from measles, or the hundreds of thousands of deaths each year from vitamin A blindness, to which genetic engineering has had a solution for years.
There just aren’t enough days in the school year to accommodate everything that should be taught—not unless you want to extend the school year, or even bring back grade 13. In fact, those are good ideas, but it seems unlikely to happen any time soon. Another good idea would be to reform the history classes, since there should be at least one mandatory class on world history.
As important as Canadian history is, civic literacy requires so much more. For instance, to properly understand the Syrian refugee crisis you would need basics in European, Middle Eastern, and Turkish history.
On top of all that, there’s another area of civic learning that is neglected: practice.
One of the best ways to learn is through practice, so why not give high schoolers more chances to directly engage with politics? There are a lot of ways in which the government could do that, and two of the best would be to lower the voting age to 16 and to give student councils a lot more power.
In the end, it’s extremely important for high schools to teach civic literacy, but the current system is so flawed we might as well scrap it and start from scratch.
Keep civics class, but make changes
Civics class is just as important as ever and the stakes are only getting higher.
How can we continue to have meaningful debates on the subject if people don’t even understand how our democratic systems work in the first place?
Having civics in the curriculum sends a message that as a country we cherish our democratic systems, and recognize that a core understanding of the subject is critical.
Especially now that our neighbours south of the border are calling facets of their own democracy into question, Canada as a country needs to work hard to preserve the integrity of its own governmental system to avoid similar problems.
In understanding the fundamentals of democracy, Canadian citizens can influence the national discussion, highlight issues in the process, and inoculate them against those who would try to mislead them on the state of their democratic institutions.
And yet, if this subject matter is so critical, why don’t people understand it even as it’s currently taught in high school?
One might argue that the class is useless, or that students don’t even pay attention to it. Unfortunately, lot’s of people don’t pay attention in history class either, but we keep that subject on the curriculum because it’s important to be exposed to information about our country’s identity.
If civics class isn’t effective, the problem is with the process, not the subject matter itself. As such, the solution to this problem is not to abolish civics class, but to work twice as hard to make it better, and make better learning opportunities available to students.
One way we could address the issues with the course is to make it a full credit instead of a half credit. For all the reasons outlined above, civics is one of the most important classes students can take in high school, and should be given an according amount of space in the curriculum.
Also, the content of a civics class could easily be interwoven into other classes, especially history, to give students a wider view of the subject and more examples of why it’s important.
The curriculum itself should also be examined. If the content presented to students can be related to modern situations, and is generally updated to be as engaging as possible, then the class should become more effective at teaching students the fundamentals of Canadian democracy.
We should certainly take notice of how few Canadians understand our electoral system, and the failings of our civics class in its current iteration. But we should use that information to create a constructive solution, as opposed to removing the class altogether.