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Municipal Civics in Elementary and High
JAMES J. SHEPPARD, New York City,
Principal High School of Commerce.
In an address at the dedication of an educational building at Albany a few days ago Governor Hughes said: "I want to refer to the importance in this day of giving our teachers and of having them communicate to their pupils the proper sense of the responsibility of citizenship in this country. It is not enough to have patriotic songs sung. It is a fine thing to have the flag flying and to have it continuously before the youthful mind as a symbol of this great independent nation, of the land of the free and the home of the brave. But as a distinguished man once said, it is a very doubtful advantage to generate emotion which has no practical use, and the emotions of patriotism ought to be stimulated with regard to certain important and practical ends. Study of civics, the knowledge of the actual operation of our government is most important".
In this statement the Governor puts the case admirably. Civics should be taught in the schools and it should be taught in a practical way. When your Committee made its investigations some half dozen years ago into the matter of instruction in municipal government in elementary and high schools it discovered two things: First a lamentable lack of proper instruction in the subject in the schools of the country and second, an earnest desire on the part of those in authority to remedy this lack. Advice and assistance were asked for by many who replied to our questionnaire. We were impressed with the inportance of presenting something definite and concrete in the way of recommendations. It was easy enough of course to say that the subject should be taught in both elementary and high schools, that it
* Report at the Cincinnati Meeting (Nov. 16, 1909) of the National Municipal League by Chairman of the Committee on Instruction in Municipal Government in Elementary and High Schools.
should be so placed in the curriculum, as to reach all the pupils, and that it should be, as Governor Hughes puts it, a study of the
actual operations of our government. But the Study of Actual schools wanted something more directly helpful Operations
than this. Few, if any, text-books suitable for the purpose were available. Practically all of them were written along the conventional lines of a scientific treatment of the framework of government with but slight and ineffective attempts to make the study other than one of broad generalizations of little direct and concrete meaning to the youthful student. Happily there has been some endeavor since the Committee's first report to make texts which really meet the need, and there are now on the market a few books which are genuinely helpful. There is every reason to believe that the production of this class of books is greatly to increase. However the Committee believes that suitable texts can only help to solve the problem.
Governor Hughes is quite right in emphasizing "the importance of giving our teachers and of having them communicate to their pupils the proper sense of responsibility of citizenship in this country", That sense of responsibility will hardly be strong and effective if it is to come from purely academic study of government. It will be powerful and helpful if it comes from an earnest and sympathetic study of government in operation, a study of what the government is actually doing for the student, what it ought to do and what he himself can do to improve it. A study of this kind can hardly fail to give the future citizens a feeling of pride in his own city, and a proper sense of his own responsibility in making its government honest and efficient. The municipal campaign recently concluded in New York seems to have been conducted largely on the idea that the average voter is more interested in personalities than policies. Such a campaign would be impossible before an electorate haying even an elementary appreciation of the direct bearing upon its own personal interests of an honest and efficient administration of the city's affairs. It is plainly the business of the schools to use their extraordinary opportunity and extraordinary power to equip the voters of to-morrow with a training in these vital affairs of government that shall make them intelligent critics of
what their servants in office have done or what claimants for their
ballots propose to do. Heretofore the schools Equipment of
have been generally content to give instruction Voters
on matters of state and national government, with but scantiest reference to municipal affairs, in spite of the fact that municipal government is of most direct and vital importance to the citizen touching him in his daily life at every turn. If the schools could only establish firmly in the minds of the students just the one fact that party labels are of no importance in municipal matters, that honest and efficient administrators should be chosen regardless of party connection or endorsement that alone would be a tremendous gain. We have been going on the assumption that a knowledge of state and federal government will furnish enough insight into matters of administration to guide the voters in matters of municipal government. It would be far better if the choice were necessary to rely upon a proper knowledge and appreciation of municipal interests to guide the voter in the broader fields of government. The choice is of course not necessary.
State and national government should still be studied but in a more rational way. Much the same method may well be employed as in the study of municipal government.
As has already been stated your Committee believes that instruction in municipal government should reach every pupil in
the schools. That means that it should not be Instruction
delayed in the elementary school till the last Should Begin
year of the course or in the high school until Early
the senior year as is still generally the rule. A large percentage of elementary school pupils drop out before they have completed even the seventh year of the course and a still larger percentage of high school enrollment is lost long before the graduation stage. The Committee believes that there should be continuous instruction in civics during the last four years of the elementary course, moving along in easy and progressive fashion from a very simple study of municipal housekeeping to a fairly comprehensive notion of the city's governmental activities. The course as outlined in the New York City program of studies for elementary schools has some admirable
features. The course in its present form is due in no small measure to the work of your committee under the original chairmanship of Superintendent Maxwell. It provides in the fifth year for some study of the duties of citizens and public officials and also of civic institutions. The study begins very logically with the most obvious form of municipal activity, the School itself, and goes on to other departments such as charities, tenement house, and parks, in each instance emphasizing what good citizenship involves in the pupil's relation to the department. In other words the study is not merely descriptive, it is personal as well. In the sixth year the outline calls for instruction concerning the chief administrative offices of the city. In the seventh year and the first half of the eighth year there is no definite provision for municipal civics, the time being devoted to national government. In the last half of the eighth year there is a return to the city government with “increasing emphasis upon the duties and responsibilities of a citizen, or as a member of a family, as pupil, as employer or employed, as voter or as office-holder". The course would be greatly improved by making a study of the city's municipal activities continuous throughout the four years. At present there is a break in the work from the end of the sixth year to the beginning of the last half of the eighth year. The difficulty is of course that of a crowded curriculum but the very great importance of the study ought to win for it a definite place in the curriculum even at the expense of some other study.
Just how well the elementary course in municipal civics is administered in New York City or in other cities where it is
prescribed it is impossible for the Committee to Elementary
A recent writer in the “Survey
rather skeptical of the results obtained in New York. From her own showing, however, I think the situation is not so bad as she seems to imagine it. We who teach know the difficulty of getting pupils to do themselves justice in examinations or tests. They really know more than their answers indicate. Patient, skillful, sympathetic questioning will often reveal intelligence where only ignorance seemed to exist. It would be a matter for surprise, however, if our civics teaching
was at present all that it ought to be. It is a new thing in the curriculum. Both its content and its proper presentation must be worked out by experiment. It can only be well handled by teachers with a keen love for the subject, a genuine appreciation of its value and some taste for first-hand investigation. Supervisory officers must give it cordial support and helpful direction.
For the immediate future we must look to the high schools, I think, to show the most marked development in the study of municipal activities. The conditions of teaching are more favorable and the teaching force better qualified to meet the problemn. History and economics are both more generally taught and certainly much better taught than they were a decade ago, and it will not be difficult, I think, to interest instructors in these subjects in the new field of municipal government. Of prime importance is the place of the new study in the curriculum. The general custom hitherto has been to postpone all teaching of civics in secondary schools until the fourth year when American history is taken up. This is a serious error as it means no instruction whatever in the subject for the vast majority of high
school students, a relatively small proportion of High School
whom complete the full course. It should not Courses
be postponed till even the second year, but should be taken up at once by the student upon entrance into the high school as a serious and important study. Confessedly pupils of 14 or 15 are not well prepared to receive instruction in civics as it is generally taught as a scientific study of state and national government with a historical background. The latter may well continue to be a part of a well-rounded high school course, modified only by the inclusion of much more work on the municipal side and greatly improved by more rational methods of teaching. But your committee earnestly insists upon place being made in the very first year of the high school course for this new work. At present there is only one high school in New York which is doing this, but it is interesting to note that no less than three committees are now at work in that city upon plans for a program of study in this subject. And, moreover, two of these committees have been appointed by bodies of a public character who are asking and securing the co-opera