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Duckler: Some lawmakers see teaching civics as our civic duty

  • The House Education Committee held a public hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Concord on Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Rep. David Doherty asks Sen. David Watters a question during a House Education Committee public hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Concord on Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Rep. Wayne Burton speaks during a House Education Committee public hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Concord on Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Sen. David Watters testifies at a House Education Committee during a public hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Concord on Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Merrimack Valley High School student Elizabeth West (center), 17, of Loudon, looks up at a painting on the wall of the State House in Concord during a tour Thursday. West was on the tour as part of a Daughters of the American Revolution Good Citizens Awards celebration. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • High school students, parents and guests tour the State House in Concord as part of a Daughters of the American Revolution Good Citizens Awards celebration on Thursday, March 16, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • While sitting with a tour group in Representatives Hall at the State House in Concord, Trinity High School student Kelsey Mercurio, 18, raises her hand to ask a question. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Mascenic Regional High School student Gabrielle Owen (second from right), 17, of New Ipswich, listens to a tour guide at the State House in Concord on Thursday, March 16, 2017. Owen was on the tour as part of a Daughters of the American Revolution Good Citizens Awards celebration. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • High school students, parents and guests tour the State House in Concord as part of a Daughters of the American Revolution Good Citizens Awards celebration on Thursday, March 16, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Friday, March 17, 2017

Lou D’Allesandro has been here before, in Room 207 at the Legislative Office Building.

He knows the routine.

The longtime state senator, a Democrat from Manchester, sat in front of lawmakers, stating the obvious, trying to make them realize that schools in New Hampshire place little emphasis on civics.

He has plenty of sound backing, individuals who know about teaching and history and law. He’s joined in this effort by the primary sponsors, Sens. David Watters and Jeb Bradley, and Rep. Patrick Long. And the New Hampshire Historical Society. And the New Hampshire Bar Association.

D’Allesandro has been out front over the past year, leading the charge, making his point, wondering why today’s students can’t identify the three branches of government.

Or why they can’t name who makes up our historical, all-female congressional delegation. Or how the state and United States Constitutions were created and what they mean and why we need them in our every day lives. Or, simply, what it means to be a citizen.

Students, D’Allesandro and his allies say, should know the basic-building blocks of our society. It should be second-nature, sort of like two plus two. It should be taught early in public school, late in public school and lots of times in the middle, too.

Senate Bill 45, which the Senate has passed, calls for concentrated course work on the subject, to begin at the start of eighth grade and continue into high school.

“The appreciation of knowledge in government is at an all-time low in this country,” D’Allesandro told the Education Committee. “It seems to me we have really been remiss in our obligation to make sure people know about our government.”

The House Education Committee focused on D’Allesandro, like he wishes students would focus on civics. They sought holes in his bill, asking D’Allesandro why we need to expand or change the half-credit of civics already in place as part of a high school social studies program.

For that answer, we move out of the Legislation Office Building and onto the phone. Elizabeth Dubrulle, the director of education and public programs for the New Hampshire Historical Society, has worked with D’Allesandro for a year to elevate the status of civics within the schools.

Dubrulle sees fourth grade kids traipse through her hallways during the school year. She hears what they know. And she hears what they don’t know. She says she sees about 70 percent of the state’s fourth graders. And she says this:

“State history has been pretty much dropped from the elementary school curriculum, and so we’re seeing the effects of that. That drew us in. Kids didn’t know who we fought in the American Revolution, and that led us into this initiative.”

There should be certain requirements needed before receiving your diploma, and knowing that the United States defeated the British in the American Revolution, in my book, is one of them.

Yet the grilling continued on Wednesday at the LOB. Rep. Rick Ladd, chairman of the Education Committee, wanted to know why course work already in place wasn’t enough.

“We emphasize from 8th grade up that we do something in the area of United States history and government, New Hampshire history and government,” Ladd said. “We have 20 credits which are required for graduation from high school, which half a credit is required in civics. How does this bill then change making what is currently being done?”

“This bill says that civics will be the centerpoint of that half credit,” D’Allesandro answered.

In other words, D’Allesandro and others want to change the culture, the environment, the sense of urgency connected to learning history and government. Each school would have the freedom to shape, mold and present the subject matter.

But SB 45 is specific about certain topics, stating that things like the structure and operation of state and federal government, the constitutional basis of state and federal government, and opportunities for participation in the governmental process should be mandatory.

Ladd kept playing devil’s advocate. He mentioned concern over “micro-managing instruction.”

“Should we adopt the same thing with geography, seeing that kids think New Mexico is a separate country?” Ladd asksed. “Do we not address all these other subjects in the same manner you’re trying to address civics.”

Watters kept his focus, citing the importance of citizenship, its responsibilities, its meaning, its very core connection to who we are.

“I trust local school boards, and this isn’t like any of the subjects,” Watters told the committee. “This is about the survival of our Democracy, this is why we have public schools. Citizenship, participation. You can go on all you want about geography, but if you are not a participating citizen, then democracy can be threatened, and I think that’s the argument.”

Anna Brown of Citizens Count also spoke to committee members. She handed out survey results showing 94 percent of 253 participants favored Team D’Allesandro’s idea.

“It’s hard to participate in a democracy,” one person surveyed wrote, “if you don’t know how it works.”

And it’s hard to know how it works if the current course work doesn’t show the full impact of what it means to be a United States citizen. D’Allesandro thinks it’s important, and he’s been teaching social studies since the Kennedy Administration.

Watters agrees, and he’s been teaching New Hampshire culture, history and literature at the University of New Hampshire for nearly 40 years.

Dubrulle agrees, too, and she’s affiliated with a treasure trove of invaluable documents.

“We often talk about making sure our kids are career-ready and college-ready when they leave high school, but just as important – maybe even more important – is that they are citizen-ready,” Dubrulle said. “And we haven’t been doing that for a long time.”

Need more proof? Former Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter, who was raised in Weare and now lives in Hopkinton, appeared here in Concord, at the Capitol Center for the Arts.

And guess what these two legal giants spent an hour discussing?

Civics.

“In too many schools, the subject of civics is considered an elective or peripheral subject,” O’Connor said. “Our founding fathers and mothers didn’t consider civic education to be an elective.”

That was 2 ½ years ago. Yet just this week, there was D’Allesandro, back at the LOB, back in room 207, back trying to convince skeptics that the state’s curriculum comes up short.

“I can’t understand it,” D’Allesandro told the committee. “It’s an oxymoron to me, to beat back a bill that tells people how the government runs. I thought it was appropriate that I bring it back.”