Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Civically Minded

Usually we learn over time to read the instructions. For whatever reasons, we as young people like to dive in and begin work on things without figuring out how to do it first. It’s likely some combination of youthful exuberance and impatience. Those of us who never learn this skill have a lot more problems during the rest of our lives. Some of them inevitably end up on Canada’s Worst Handyman or Driver.

Perhaps the most important thing people are entrusted with that they don’t read the instructions for is citizenship. The owner’s manual of any country, essentially, is its constitution. How many of us have read it? How many of us actually know our specific rights, or only have a vague notion of them from what we’ve heard and read. I’ve heard people in Canada talk about their Fifth Amendment rights, which is, of course, American. No doubt they picked it up from Law and Order.

I’m not going to complain about adolescents or young adults, because it is the system that seems to be failing. Given my interests and education if I become a high school teacher one of the courses I want to teach is Civics. In Ontario students are required to take one half-credit course on Canadian Civics. Four months. It’s the only class in the entire Ontario curriculum specifically dedicated for students to develop an understanding of their roles as citizens, and we give them four months to accomplish it.

My peers often give me strange looks when I say I want to teach Civics. Usually it is taught, poorly, by a teacher who drew a short straw. It requires no special education to teach it, and is usually foisted on someone with a Social Science degree. As a great credit to our political class, a large number of Canadians are apathetic about the political system. The reason is because we are governed comparatively well. Peace, Order and Good Government – the nation’s motto – seems to fit well with how we’ve been going along, so it doesn’t really matter if it’s Chretien, Martin, Harper, Ignatieff, etc. The ship of state continues on a steady-as-she-goes course, likewise with the Province, and with most cities.

Why does Civic Education matter? There are three main reasons that come to mind immediately. First, learning your actual rights and responsibilities. The first is self-explanatory, but the second is often overlooked. As a citizen of a municipality, region, province, and nation you have certain duties to perform. It’s not enough to simply be a citizen, but to be informed and aware of the condition of your body politic. It isn’t just your right to vote, it’s your responsibility. Without your voice the government is incomplete. 40% of the public doesn’t vote, based on Canada’s system of elections if all of them came out and voted it would likely form a majority government, think about that.

Second, representative government requires an active citizenry. Informed, active citizens have changed the face of history. In the 1960s numerous cities across North America faced outrage and protest when plans to construct expressways by demolishing neighbourhoods came on the table. This riled up communities and they resisted. Spadina in Toronto is an example of this. If people said nothing and allowed the municipal government to do as it pleased their homes and community would have been destroyed. People aren’t heard if they don’t speak out.

Third, teaching how to use government more effectively. Government is complex with many layers. By understanding the responsibilities and powers of each level of government and who can get you what you need.

There could be a fourth item, how to politically organize, and what your politics are. I may choose to avoid teaching it, because there is a risk of teaching your ideology. However, there is a benefit to having students learn how to protest, how to politically organize and how to sway the opinions of those in power.

Civics doesn’t just benefit those who learn, but society as a whole. It’s an investment in the future to ensure the stability and health of the country, province, region or municipality. Because after all, the children are our future, and we have to make sure they’re ready to take over.

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