SALT LAKE CITY — Each political stalemate and every corporate scandal teaches a lesson, and one Utah lawmaker wants those lessons to be given as much priority in Utah schools as reading and math.
Once the hallmark of the U.S. public education system, civic and character education has gotten the shaft over the years, said Rep. LaVar Christensen, which is why he has made repeated efforts to ensure the subjects are thoroughly taught in Utah classrooms.
The fact that most high stakes assessments hinge on language arts and math, coupled with a society that's bent on making it in the global world can make for incomplete instruction on civics, he said.
The Draper Republican has sponsored three bills in recent years — all of which have become law — and can be commonly heard quoting past presidents and historical figures during any given legislative committee meeting. Educating the populace in order to maintain the country's form of government was what the Founding Fathers really had in mind when they created the education system, according to Christensen.
"Is it really about math and science initiatives? Is it really about learning Chinese?" Christensen said. "The belief was that civic and character education was the nucleus of all public education. … It was the cause of, it was the reason for."
Civic education is the study of rights and duties of citizenship, and the functions and history of the U.S. government. Character education covers the "habits of thought and deed that help people live and work together as families, friends, neighbors, communities and nations," according to the U.S. Department of Education.
During the World War II era, civic education was integrated into the curriculum of every grade, said Charles Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education, a nonprofit organization that promotes the teaching of the subject in schools. But by the 1960s, civic education had gotten a bad rap, he said. It was believed by some to project "blind patriotism" onto students, and the curriculum often wasn't engaging.
"In the '60s, civic education sort of got wiped out from the schools," Quigley said.
During the Cold War and the race to space, many Americans worried about falling behind the Soviet Union.
"Everyone went nuts about math and science and that crowded a lot of other things out of the curriculum," he said.
Since then, there have been movements to restore it to the broad subject it once was, but success has been varied because the world of today presents its own obstacles.
"There is sort of a civics recession going on in the schools," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, 10 to 15 percent of students in the country receive a good civic education."
Utah schools perform exceptionally well compared to other states, Christensen said, but he wants educators to do even more. His 2004 legislation defined civic and character education and put it into the state code. In 2006, he created a civic and character education commission designed to develop public awareness and teacher training. And his most recent bill, passed last session, will require every public school in the state to send a year-end report to the commission detailing how the subjects are being taught in schools.
Robert Austin, a social studies specialist at the State Office of Education, is confident Christensen and the commission will like what they see when they review the reports at the end of the next school year.
"I think that when those reports start to come in from school districts across the state, we will see some really great (teaching) happening," he said.
Austin said one challenge with effectively teaching civic and character education stems from the fact that national benchmarks are largely geared around math and reading. Federal initiatives such as the No Child Left Behind Act judge schools based on how well students perform in those subjects.
Yet as far as the state expectations are concerned, Austin said civic and character education is "as much a part of the core as reading skills and math skills."
Another challenge is the focus on being able to compete in global economies, Quigley said.
"Now it's economic competitiveness, so what's stressed is math and language skills and there's no question that has crowded other (subjects) out," he said. "It has been gradually making its way back but it has these obstacles."
Christensen said he has seen great examples of teachers who engage students in learning, but he hopes state education officials will get the message across to teachers who might be timid about being patriotic in class.
"We're already doing this, but we can be doing it better," he said. "The State Office of Education and the state board need to catch the vision of this."
The serious ramifications of a society with lacking civic understanding are obvious to Christensen and Quigley.
"All too many of (our citizens) are not engaged. They don't take part in the political process. … Their voices aren't heard," Quigley said. "In a democracy, that's not very good."
Christensen said lacking character education has proven to be problematic as well. When students spend the majority of their day in a classroom, they should learn values like integrity and honesty or else they can end up with no moral compass. Economics and business teachers can talk about corporate failures such as Enron and integrate honesty lessons into the discussion.
"It's supposed to permeate the entire education system," he said. "If these things are treated as programs instead of enduring principals, they can be treated as a fad."
According the state civic education core standards, Utah children learn about the civic process beginning in kindergarten and every year following through high school. Austin said even with a 13-grade school system, not every battle and law can be covered, which is why he cares more that they learn about the branches and roles of government than memorizing dates and names.
"We worry sometimes when kids don't necessarily know a specific date or a specific event," Austin said. "Those kind of deeper concepts are what I care about more. … We can't cover every possible event in United States history."
Christensen said his passion for the furthering the subjects comes from his belief that as students learn how their communities, states and country were founded, they'll be better equipped and inclined to impact the community around them.
"If you let that just become archived as just a historical tale as opposed our legacy of virtue, character and courage as a people, then we're diminished as a society — as a nation — from generation to generation."