Civics is Alive: Throwing out the Textbook

There’s one seemingly vital tool you won’t find in David Hertzinger’s and Nate Crimmins’s civics classrooms: textbooks. For these history teachers, civics as a form of study doesn’t happen on the page. It happens within the spirited debate and curious inquiry of well-educated young adults. Textbooks are, in many cases, secondary sources, a distillation of historical record that doesn’t always tell the whole story.

“We’re using the primary sources,” explains Hertzinger. “What we’ve been using this semester is the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence. We want the kids to actually see what [these documents] say.”

Historical summary is often controlled by a master narrative that overshadows varying perspectives on historical events. And it’s precisely these perspectives that Hertzinger and Crimmins want their students to consider. To probe beyond a page of text and explore the nuances and complications of how history reverberates into the future. Civics is the perfect medium for such an exploration, because the creation of the U.S. Government and its founding documents still control how the United States is run and how citizens can work within the system to effect change. In other words, CDS students are learning, in the classroom, how to become active participants in local, state, and federal governments.

This examination of source material is also important during a time when bias and truth distortions can be found almost everywhere, from TikTok videos to news coverage. Hertzinger and Crimmins understand that media literacy is now a necessary skill, especially for children in their formative years who are susceptible to messaging from the television they watch, to the websites they frequent, to the social media sites they access on their phones.

“I don’t want to just talk to my students,” Crimmins says. “I want them to consider big ideas. I want them to try on different positions, different perspectives, and kind of come to their own conclusions.”

Crimmins and Hertzinger want their students to understand how and why the United States government was structured the way it was, but they also want their students to understand the cultural context that led to its creation and how its creation impacted a myriad of peoples in different, sometimes contentious ways. They also want to provide students with a blueprint in understanding how the ripples of history affect their everyday lives in the twenty-first century. Enter the study of citizenship and civil rights. Civil rights movements are, academically, largely about citizens working within systems of government to expand and/or fully access the rights they enjoy as Americans. As a form of study, they’re a roadmap for students, as citizens and future voters, to unlock the barrier between politics and the public.

The creation of this new class is also an example of how CDS as an institution never stops its pursuit of self-improvement. Elements of civics have always been taught in history classrooms at Carolina Day, but CDS faculty and curriculum leaders saw an opportunity to provide students with a more focused and discussion-driven exploration of the subject, one that builds on students’ historical education instead of reiterating it. As a result of Carolina Day’s mission to create strong leaders who embrace challenge and exploration, Hertzinger and Crimmins let student inquiry guide their lesson plans, even if those inquiries can sometimes lead the class to unexpected places.

“One of the class’s earliest projects is more of an icebreaker,” Crimmins explains. “It’s an opportunity for students to declare their independence from something. It asked students to come together in the same way that founding thinkers came together and penned the Declaration of Independence to cut ties with England. We asked students, what do you want to cut ties with? Last year one group wanted to cut ties with Boris Johnson. Then we as a group all had to contribute to the statement, the declaration. And [the class] found it really hard. That illustrated how the early Founders had a fear of mobocracy, this idea that the mob would rule, so we better not have a pure democracy but a representative democracy. It did give us an example of, remember when you all thought it would be funny, and now you’re regretting it? I think the Founders would call that mobocracy.”

CDS students never learn in a silo. They must understand the world outside of Carolina Day in order to make a positive impact after graduation, so Hertzinger and Crimmins have plans to reach beyond the classroom and bring in both elected politicians and local civil rights leaders to speak directly to their students about their respective work. Last year, North Carolina House of Representatives member (and CDS class of ’92 alumnus) Brian Turner talked to CCRC students about representing constituents across political lines, how the work representatives do impacts citizens young and old on a daily basis, and how political districts are drawn and often redrawn. CCRC students also Zoomed with constitutional scholars from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia to discuss how laws create limits but also how laws can be malleable, how they change over time, and how they can be changed by citizen engagement.

In a time of deep political polarization along party lines, and especially in an election year, it can be difficult to juggle differing perspectives, but Hertzinger and Crimmins have created respectful and safe environments for students to ask questions, express opinions, and debate spiritedly without having those debates devolve.

The class’s yearlong format allows students to learn about the structure and function of government in the fall, and then apply that knowledge by tying it in to the second semester where students learn and research “stories of different communities and how they have either used those structures” or worked “around those structures to claim their rights.”

“Social studies, history, whatever you want to call it, is alive,” Hertzinger says. “This stuff impacts their lives, has meaning in their lives.”

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