Minnesota lawmakers think your kids should know civics

For some reason, we keep expecting Americans to become more engaged in their responsibility as citizens. We scratch our heads and try to figure out why they don’t vote and why elections end up as more theater than a sobering discussion of issues.

The answer is obvious, however. When it comes to government, Americans are mostly ignorant.

This has been documented in this space so many times that I tire of doing so again. So, here. Go read the proof.

So it was heartening to read the Star Tribune article Wednesday about several lawmakers who’ve proposed that civics be required for juniors and seniors in high school.

They would need one credit to graduate. One credit. That’s not asking too much.

“We have three out of four graduating who do not understand how our government works,” Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township, said. “We’ve got to do something or we’re going to lose a whole generation of people, and that’s a serious problem for our country.”

We’ve already lost several generations, as the annual Constitution Day survey reveals every year.

The school board lobbyists aren’t impressed.

“Once you start prescribing specific courses in certain grades, that takes away some flexibility and options for our districts and our students,” Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, tells the Strib.

He said civics is already included in social studies standards in Minnesota.

It’s not working. The data is conclusive.

The Strib says the proposal has bipartisan support, which is encouraging. It’s a bipartisan problem.

  • He said civics is already included in social studies standards in Minnesota.

    I wonder how watered down it has become since I was in school (late 1970’s, early 1980’s)…

    /Learned about Civics in junior high school.

    • jon

      Because I moved from IL to MN in highschool I had to take the civic course twice… in IL it’s required by the end of 8th grade, in MN it was given in 9th grade as a requirement to graduate high school. I moved the middle of 10th, and had to take it again because it wasn’t on my high school transcript.

      They were very similar classes, and they both pulled questions from the citizenship test… so the questions ended up being about the same, except for the coupe that MN requires about “Minnesota history”*

      This was all in the late 90s.

      A quick look suggests they still pull the test questions from the same place, and they still teach the same material.

      I’m not sure how much you can water down teaching the constitution, if I’m recalling correctly it’s less than 8,000 words total (including amendments).

      *MN history was a big part of the class in MN, but IL history wasn’t even a thing they concerned themselves about in IL.

      • Joseph

        MN history was not really discussed in my high school history courses, they mostly relegated that to a surface-level teaching in elementary school grades. At least for me. Wish I’d had more MN history!

        • fromthesidelines21

          Typically MN History is taught in 6th grade. it was for me in the late 80’s and still is for my 6th grader now. Many of the schools up here in Norther MN usually add a class trip to the Cities to visit the Capitol and History/Science Museums Fort Snelling and and any other stops they can cram in. Sadly for few of the students it is the first time they ever get to the the Twin Cities.

        • The Resistance

          You’re never too old to learn! The MNHS magazine is a great, readable resource. Check it out. It’s history, not civics, but sometimes they overlap.


      • Barton

        We had watered down MN history in 8th grade: 1 quarter of it, then 1 quarter of civics.

        I say watered down b/c it sure was a “yeah, European Settlers!” course, and a recitation of MN troops in the Civil War….

        • John O.

          What?!?! No Joe Rolette stories?

          Since I grew up in Wisconsin, we had the Joe McCarthy saga and the William Proxmire “Golden Fleece” awards in our government class. And Watergate.

        • History and civics are different things.

    • boB from WA

      //”Once you start prescribing specific courses in certain grades, that takes away some flexibility and options for our districts and our students,” Kirk Schneidawind…”

      Oh waa. Flexibility was pushed out long ago with mandatory testing.

      Ditto Onan and Jon

    • Joseph

      I had my Civics class in 2009 (my senior year) at Roseville Area High School. There, civics is a required one trimester class for all students to take their senior year. (I took AP Gov & Politics, which was an option. You either had to do AP or normal civics). We were also required to take a one trimester Economics class as seniors.

      Required classes:
      – Freshman – Human Geography/General Social Studies
      -Sophomore – World History/AP World History
      -Junior – US History/Honors US History
      -Senior – Civics/AP Gov-Politics, Economics/AP Microecon.

      *Social-studies electives offered: Psych/AP Psych, AP European History, one or two others. (I took AP Psych.)

  • fromthesidelines21

    Fully support this idea. I don’t know if it needs to be Junior and Senior years only but those grades make sense. When I was in school (small town) we had civics in 9th, Am History 10th, Geography 11th and Seniors had a choice of American Govt or AP Psych. I took AP Psych and it was the least useful of all of those classes but that was for the ‘college bound’ kids.

    I’m not sure what current standards are but it really isn’t enough to “teach civics” only while learning how the founders formed the government in an American History class. There is too much ground to cover in a short time frame.

    • jon

      Current standards:

      “Graduation requirements for social studies state that all students are required to satisfactorily complete three and one-half (3.5) credits of social studies, including U.S. history, geography, government and citizenship, world history and economics”

      “In 2016, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law requiring Minnesota students in public schools to pass a civics test.”

      Full text here:

  • Kassie

    I don’t know if leaning something in high school equals being an informed citizen as an adult. I took Chemistry in high school, but I know basically nothing about it now. Same with Calculus. A couple years ago I had to take a test for a professional certification and I had to go to the library to get a very basic math book to reteach myself how to multiply and divide fractions for the test. I took economics in high school, undergraduate and graduate school and know basically nothing about how the economy works. How many adults don’t know the difference between there, their and they’re? Many, but they were all taught it in school.

    • That’s because you’re not a chemist.

      But you’re still a citizen with a responsibility. If you don’t know how government works, you can’t make an informed decision on who should run it.

      If you don’t know the rights you actually have, you can’t demand they be protected. Even scarier, you won’t know when you lose them.

      • Mark Snyder

        As someone who has a degree in chemistry, I agree with this. There’s a lot more ways that civics shows up in our daily lives than chemistry does, although I would say chemistry should be more prominent from a consumer standpoint if not a citizen standpoint.

        • John

          Chemistry shows up in your life every time you eat, drive, wash your hands, or put on clothes.

          If you don’t think chemistry shows up in your daily life, you’re not looking hard enough.

          • But how does what people learned in chemistry class useful in their lives if they’re not chemists? Does it have value?

            (Just guessing, I’d say not mixing chlorine and ammonia)

          • John

            Much like government, chemistry impacts your life every day – regardless of whether you are knowledgeable about it or not.

            Also, yes. Don’t mix chlorine and ammonia.

    • asiljoy

      You take different courses for different things. I took Calc not because I was going to become a math major, but because it was like strength training for my brain. I took Personal Finance because I needed life skills like balancing a checkbook and understanding compound interest. Both were optional, but thanks to my counselors for pointing me in the right direction.

  • Barton

    Maybe instead of requiring it (again, it seems from what I’m reading below), they should require schools to buy new curriculum so that it is interesting.

    For example, my neighbor’s kid borrowed my DVD’s of School House Rock’s government/history “videos.” He said he learned more from those than he did in a full civics course.

  • Al

    Fun fact: I made my civics teacher cry in high school. I wish I were exaggerating.

    I REALLY want kids to learn more about civics (and adults), and I also worry about the burden this places on schools who are already understaffed and trying to cram their required courses into a day with only so many hours.

    • Wait. You have to tell the story. How did you make your civics teacher cry?

      • Al

        She had us journal to start each day. That day’s topic was our favorite flavor of ice cream. I told her, in journal form, that it was a garbage topic. She cried. I regret nothing.

        Talk about a missed opportunity: We were in civics class during Ventura’s campaign. We were all riveted by the whole thing. I’m guessing that was the first time any of us even knew what a governor did, much less any of the candidates’ names.

    • Joseph

      Tears of joy? Or tears of anger/frustration/pain?

  • Brian Simon

    I don’t think I ever had a civics class that covered local & state govt. Did study the constitution as part of the american history curriculum in high school. My teacher happened to view that subject matter as particularly important, so we spent a whole week on the chapter, including a daily quiz. But other teachers at the same school did not treat it the same.

    Point being, it seems to be luck of the draw, depending on school, teacher, and perhaps even current events.

    • Mark Snyder

      I think this is true. High school was a long time ago for me (1986-1990), but I remember my civics teacher being engaging enough that I found his class interesting to the point where I also participated in the mock trial team he “coached.” The history teacher pretty much just assigned reading from the text books and did nothing to make the subject engaging at all.

    • Jack

      My senior year civics teacher gave extra credit for going to city council meetings and precinct caucuses. I ended up being a delegate to the county convention in 1984. Still interested in politics today.

      Thanks Mrs. Barrett. Rest in peace.

  • Sybil Twilight

    Teaching is different than learning. Ideally, if one is a teacher, one is dedicated to ensuring that what you are doing in the classroom leads to learning. IRL that’s not always the case- you can lead a horse to water etc.

    The K-12 Social Studies Standards are 151 pages long, the 9-12 standards are 53 of those pages. There are 336 school districts in MN, each with their own rules and requirements for how those standards are being taught.

    When you move down to the classroom level, it’s really up to individual teachers. I taught HS Social Studies for 20 years, never taught civics, but at any one time 3-4 members of the Social Studies Dept. did. All 9th graders were required to take a year of Civics.

    Edit to add: I don’t really think 9th grade is the best time to teach civics. I think students would find it much more interesting as they’re approaching voting age and you can tie in the civic responsibility more easily.

    There was one absolute genius of a teacher who created all kinds of learning activities, games, songs, mock legislatures, etc. A couple of the others relied on textbooks, worksheets, and a one even used filmstrips long after the rest of the world had moved on to DVDs. Eventually during a course work standardization project the principal required that all the civics classes be taught using the lessons and activities developed by the genius teacher.

    Still I know there were kids who left those classes with not a clue about civics, citizenship, and government. Some kids just choose not to learn.

    • jon

      “I don’t really think 9th grade is the best time to teach civics.”

      My 8th grade IL civics teacher asked us why we thought they made civics a requirement for 8th grade… a variety of answers was tossed out, but the one he liked best was because it was important and if you looked at the statistics in IL dropouts start to increase significantly after 8th grade. So requiring it at 8th grade ensured that the majority of the students took the course.

    • Well according to the Annenburg Survey, that would be 2/3s of the American population.

  • Jerry

    Everybody is taught civics. That doesn’t mean everybody is learning it.

    • Rob

      Yes. As Dubya famously asked: “Is our children learning?”

  • MrE85

    It always gives me pause when I agree with Bob 100 percent, but this is one of those times. I vote “yes” for this bill.

  • Vince Tuss

    You can try questions from the citizenship test yourself here: https://woodrow.org/americanhistory/

  • Hermann

    I am amazed at the recall of people commenting on this story. I know I graduated high school, but other than that the details on classes attended are fuzzy.

  • X.A. Smith

    If we lowered the voting age to 16, it might incentivize students to learn this stuff, and it would offer a great opportunity for the institution to encourage participation—and form the habit of civic participation—while the young citizens are still in a structured environment.

    • The Resistance

      Oregon is debating this, although unlikely to be passed. There are, however, several states that allow 16 year olds to pre-register to vote. We’re not one of them.

      • X.A. Smith

        Aha! a fellow The Gist listener?

        • The Resistance

          No, but I’ll check it out. I wondered what happened to Pesca. I hate sports but always listened when he was on because he was a great storyteller.

          • X.A. Smith

            He just interviewed an Oregon state senator pushing for that measure.

            It’s a great daily podcast.

    • Brian Simon

      I dunno. It all comes back to “how does this affect ME?” When I turned 16, the only laws I was interested in were those I needed to know to pass the drivers test. Acquiring the right to vote at 18 passed unnoticed. I moved out of state, to a campus lacking in any awareness of the larger world. That was an election year, though I was largely oblivious of that fact. When I graduated college & returned home, hoping to start a career, I lived with my dad & brother; all seeking jobs or better jobs. We payed closer attention to how elections affected us & I cast my first ballot. That was 1992.

      • X.A. Smith

        Imagine if your first election experience was part of your HS curriculum. In-class discussions of the issues, researching candidates & local races, etc. Maybe with extra credit for bringing in your “I Voted” sticker…

  • Jack Ungerleider

    I grew up in NY (High School graduation 1979) I have little sympathy for the “flexibility” complaint of sited in the story. In NY they had the time (still do in some form) a “Regents Diploma” as opposed to a “General Diploma”. To qualify for the Regents Diploma you had to take, and pass, a certain number of Regents Exams. (Most math and science courses had Regents exams.) All students were supposed to take the Social Studies (American History) regents in 11th grade. The English regents was also given in 11th grade (I think it was American Lit) which was also expected of all students. So for most of my time in High School there was little flexibility in what to take or what the school offered. I took one semester of Government and one of Economics my senior year.

    Note: The NYS Regents Exam was the same exam given to all students who took the Regents level course that year. There was a big scandal one year when copies of the exams went missing from a safe. (I think it was a particular school district but the detail is fleeting.) They almost scrapped the test for fear of wide spread cheating. The incentive for students was if you had a Regents Diploma you qualified for scholarships to State University of New York (SUNY) schools.

  • EarthToBobby

    Civics courses need to go beyond the usual lessons about branches of government and the US Constitution. Civics ought to include the examination of one’s own community and the municipal government — not (just) about city council meetings, but about what city council members can do, what a mayor can do, etc, and how the normal citizen can access and influence that power. Not just how a bill becomes a law, or attending a city council meeting (borrring), but the conversations and movement behind the curtain that run the city.

    Also, there should be more opportunity for and lessons in leadership development for junior and high schoolers, but for students in the classroom to study and examine their own potential. It’s been awhile since I’ve been high school but it seems that kind of development gets reserved for the kids who can get onto student council or the sports teams and such. Participatory politics means everyone.

  • AL287

    I often wonder if Donald Trump had Civics. He runs roughshod over the Constitution and thinks he is above the law.

    Our Congress has a prime opportunity to rein him in by banding together to override his inevitable veto and terminate his declaration of a national emergency on our southern border.

    With Mitch McConnell expressing doubts about the legality of it, what better civics lesson is there?

    The Republican-controlled Senate needs to prove to the American public that they believe in government that works for every American and are not cowering lap dogs elected to do Trump’s bidding.