Citizenship – A Lost Discipline in Public Education

The summer of 2020 was like none other.  The death of George Floyd on Memorial Day weekend was another flashpoint in an already hot debate on race in our country that runs over 200 years deep.  As additional racially charged events occurred, emotions ran high.  This only compounded the stress people felt regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming presidential election.  As summer turned to fall and the leaves changed, the anxiety of a nation caused citizens to rage.  If you read any news source, everyone has an opinion.  The talking heads of Fox News, CNN, Twitter all have something to say about what is wrong with the world and how to fix it.  We saw athletes begin to assert themselves in new ways.  All of the major sports leagues took a step back in August after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, WI.  The debate over re-opening schools and the possibility of another shutdown over COVID-19 has increased anxiety in adults and our kids.

As I sifted through the myriad of opinions over the last several months, it is hard to know who to believe.  Educators are now faced with a dilemma themselves as they try to collect information at a dizzying rate and then disseminate it to their students – in a remote environment for many.  It is during times like this that educators have to remember that part of their role is to help students become citizens.  Citizens that will be able to identify bias and truth and ultimately to make rational contributions to their communities.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “The true purpose of education is to prepare young men and women for effective citizenship in a free form of government.”  Educators are generally left leaning in their political orientation.  It’s not a secret, nor is it inherently wrong.  However, it is important that educators recognize this and that their students understand they are receiving this information through that lens.  If school systems want to increase equity, they must also understand the perspective that many of their stakeholders have of the world and current policies.

But what can we do to improve citizenship in our education?  As educators jump into these difficult conversations, there are guidelines that can help them feel equipped to converse with their students.  Educators should consider the following:

  1. Civic Education Principle #1: Multiple things can be true. Just because someone believes one idea, it doesn’t negate that the opposite idea is automatically false.  The coronavirus can be deadly and it can also be safe for students to return to school.  NBA player Myers Leonard wore a black lives matter t-shirt and stood for the national anthem.  Voters can disdain one political candidate, but still agree with more of his policies than his opponent.  Students need to know that they don’t have to get caught in the polarization of competing ideologies.
  2. Civic Education Principle #2: We aren’t perfect. Humans are prideful people and we seek our own good before we seek the good of others.  We’d like to think it is not true, but pay attention to the news if you disagree.  Teachers need to help students recognize this core truth as they process world events themselves.
  3. Civic Education Principle #3: We have to show compassion, civility and honesty. The vitriol that is coming out of politicians on both sides of the aisle has caused the stakes to escalate.  Destructive protests in major cities like Portland have become expected and resulted in greater anger.  The destruction and lack of civility has only galvanized the opposing sides.  After the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, one shop owner yelled at protestors, “Do you want Trump to get re-elected?”    The antidote to this rage is honesty coupled with civility.  The left and the right of the political spectrum have to be more committed to collectively pursuing what is true and less on the destruction of those they oppose.  NFL Football player, Champ Bailey, poignantly stated in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, “I believe if we start listening, there’s no telling the progress we can make. All of us are dads, sons, brothers, your friends. We all understand that if we can’t get our friends to listen, then no one will. And to my black brothers, if you do not have anything positive to say about our social challenges, please keep your mouth shut.”  Our students must have models of civility in the educators that surround them and whom they depend on for a healthy worldview.
  4. Civic Education Principle #4: There is likely an issue behind the issue. It’s easy to look at certain problems in society and only look at the surface level.  Educators must be able to look deeper about the causes that may have been set in motion decades earlier.  Generational poverty is an example.  The anger many African Americans feel about being marginalized in society is not the result of feeling like they have been targeted by law enforcement.  The issue runs deeper and longer than that.  It’s important that all students dig into this and understand how policies and people intersect over time.

As the precipice of an election is upon us, the need for well-informed citizens is clear.  Citizenship education begins in the home and then in schools.  Educators must remember the importance of citizenship as a discipline and purpose in education.  As we traverse the uncertain future of the issues affecting our country, building strong citizens in our schools may offer an antidote to what ails our society for future generations.  May we build our students into strong citizens for the good of our communities and country – our future depends on it.


Dr. Eric H. Tornfelt is an Assistant Principal at Sedgefield Middle School in Charlotte, NC.  Dr. Tornfelt was honored as Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools Teacher of the year in 2012.  He has a proven track record of instructional leadership success in a variety of school settings.  He completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Furman University and his Doctorate of Education in Educational Leadership from Wingate University.

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