August 14, 2019

Why We Must Decolonize Civics

By Kara Cisco

There’s an adage I use with my students often that the roots of our country will show up in its leaves. In order to ensure that the leaves of our youth flourish, a sound approach to civics education is essential. Yet even as we increasingly recognize civics requirements in policy debates, we often miss the mark by focusing on whether civics should be taught, and not getting clear on the what and how of civics curriculum. To empower students to dismantle the systems of oppression, we must help them wrestle with the realities of our history—not gloss it over. The idea that the United States is uniquely virtuous may be comforting, but the facts are far more complicated. As educators, we must help students break through the confines of the traditional narratives and move toward decolonized civics curriculum—not just in our classrooms but across the education system.

What is decolonized civics curriculum?

A decolonized civics curriculum starts with a critically conscious lens that examines the myriad of ways traditional civics education perpetuates white supremacy. There is so much our textbooks and standards do not teach our students or that is merely referenced as a parenthetical afterthought. For example, standard civics curriculum makes little mention of the influence of the Iroquois Nation on our system of government; deemphasizes the role of slavery in the framing of our Constitution; and ignores the many fault lines of our Constitution that merit discussion and debate.

“My call to educators is to decolonize our approach—because, for our students, the traditional civics and government curriculum is one of cognitive dissonance when juxtaposed with the everyday reality of inequity.”

As a long-time civics and government teacher, I often think about the myths outlined by Paolo Freire in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed:” the entrenched myths of equality, heroism of the oppressor classes, and generosity of the elites. These myths are fundamentally perpetuated by our curricula, textbooks, and pedagogy: the ‘shining city on a hill’, heroic founders myths, and myths which allow our students to believe that the peculiar alchemy of Classical Republicanism and Natural Rights theory that birthed our Constitution function as safeguard against the influence of tyranny and oppression. If only.

What is required and what we should require of ourselves

The 2019 education omnibus bill includes a provision that encourages school districts to offer a civics course for 11th and 12th graders. And a law passed in 2016, requires students to answer 30 out of 50 questions on the U.S. Citizenship test correctly. As the legislature calls on us to ensure sounds civics education, my call to educators is to decolonize our approach—because, for our students, the traditional civics and government curriculum is one of cognitive dissonance when juxtaposed with the everyday reality of inequity, injustice, and a system of checks and balances that clearly is not functioning as described in the glossy pages of their textbooks. We have the capacity to be leaders in this work by modifying our curriculum, staying engaged with state education policy, speaking with our legislators and becoming involved when state standards come up for review next year. (Yes, you can get involved! The committee application will be available this Spring.)

“We have the capacity to be leaders in this work by modifying our curriculum, staying engaged with state education policy, speaking with our legislators and becoming involved when state standards come up for review.”

Our students need to know that the roots of our country are as shaped by genocide, enslavement, misogyny, and rape as they are shaped by the philosophical genius of men. An examination of Thomas Jefferson alone would unearth all of that and more.  Our students need to analyze the complexity of First and Second Amendment interpretations over time and examine the expansion of the executive branch and the expanding and contracting power of the Supreme Court. Students need to understand the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments as America’s second founding—and that those Amendments were functionally void until the civil rights movement, and still remain dubious given the realities of voter suppression and mass incarceration. We live in a complicated world where heroes can be villains, and our students need to know this too. It’s not just a plot device for Marvel movies, but part of our complex reality.

That a decolonized curriculum could be used to understand the current presidency is only relevant insofar as the same curriculum could be used to understand the last ten presidencies.  There is no need to teach in a way that could be interpreted as partisan when the systems which govern us reach far beyond any political ideology. Decolonized civics curriculum can’t teach students what to think—only how. Regardless of whether they identify as Democrat or Republican, how can we prepare our students to be civic-minded when they take our place as the stewards of this more perfect union if their introduction to U.S. government is full of missing pieces (and people)? Teaching civics honestly and completely ensures that students are prepared to confront the present-day issues and inequities that divide our country.

An honest civics course

I teach my civics course in a manner that challenges students to critically examine the systemic and historical roots of inequities and continue to work on my ability to decolonize my own perspective. As a white woman in a state where 96 percent of my teaching peers are also white, I must work actively to shift the power dynamic and reflect on what it means for civics interpreted through a white gaze. Institutional power persists when white teachers like me assert authority within this work. The nuance of what an honest civics course—or any course—looks like in a system that remains overwhelmingly white is an ongoing conversation that must happen in partnership with our community and our students. Everything we do in the classroom only works when we include complex and emotional examinations of history and power, in partnership with all of our students.