Learning to be litigants

Instead of traditional civics — how a bill becomes a law, etc. — students are learning to work the system, writes Gilbert Sewall of the American Textbook Council.

Many social-studies educators think the study of basic governmental principles is “dry.” They shrink from civics that is openly patriotic, calling it propaganda. But while they worry about “mindless” nationalism, they eagerly advocate a reformed vision of citizenship by the textbooks they choose.

These curriculum planners say that the time to “demystify” government courses is overdue. Civics education should be “practical” and “empowering.” Lessons should emphasize individual and group rights. Content should highlight the here-and-now and the close-to-home. These ideas are often mixed with the rhetoric of “minority needs.”

Political principles are out. “Street law” is in.

Claiming to be a step forward, Street Law replaces conventional civics with a bleak world of torts, liability, rights, entitlements, discrimination, and self-expressive lifestyles. Such content, publishers say, applies directly to teenagers’ lives. But the operative culture that wafts up from the text is dreary and atomized, litigious and drained of civic appeal.

Students aren’t taught to be citizens of a republic, writes Sewall. They’re taught to be members of a faction — and legal clients.

About Joanne


  1. Group rights? I didn’t know groups could have rights. Individuals have rights, and in this country, the ideal is that all individuals should have the same rights. Implicit in the concept of group rights is the idea that different groups should have different rights. I’m not saying that people can be denied their rights because of their racial, ethnic, or sexual identity, but even then those are individual rights which are being denied.

    I’ve got a huge problem with civics courses teaching a concept which has no basis in American law. (No, I’m not accepting the fact that some activist judges have pushed this as justification.)

    The other thing I’ve got a problem with is civics courses saying, the system is broken, so let’s learn to play it the best we can, instead of teaching what it SHOULD be so students can look at what is and maybe fix it.

    And what exactly was mystifying about traditional civics education, anyway? I’m baffled by that one.

  2. While groups don’t have rights, it’s pretty obvious that the most effective way to remedy the situation is to group similar injustices together. I don’t investigate an attempt to blow up a building as several hundred individual attempted murder investigations…

    In general, most groups banding together are either:
    not attempting to secure special rights, but rights that are granted regularly to all others (discrimination)
    more controversially, are trying to obtain rights that they feel would be generally available if their numbers were more widely represented (accomodation).
    To tackle the most contraversial topic first, affirmative action’s initial justification was on basis (1), i.e. a remediation of previous injustices. It has gradually transformed from a group-oriented movement into a general movement (and evolved from AA to “diversity”) that believes that society is best served when a variety of group representatives are found in areas where they would be otherwise under-represented. Whether they are right or wrong, or whether the cost is worth the benefit is immaterial. It is only marginally a “group right” issue now.

  3. mike from oregon says:

    The link to ‘work the system’ doesn’t work. Thought you might like to know.

  4. “I don’t investigate an attempt to blow up a building as several hundred individual attempted murder investigations…”

    Yes, but that’s a conspiracy where membership in the group was *voluntary.* There’s a clear choice on each member to be a part of this group.

    On the other hand, people don’t choose to be black or white or male or female or straight or gay. If someone is denied an individual right based on group membership, that should be redressed. But they are still being denied *individual* rights. There are no rights which can be accorded based *solely* on group identity, which is what I’ve heard certain group rights advocates in my school’s poli-sci department advocate.

    The concept of rights in our government is based on the individual, not the group, and rights should be taught that way.

  5. “On the other hand, people don’t choose to be black or white or male or female or straight or gay.”

    I don’t think that it is settled whether people choose to be straight or gay. In fact, it is my impression from experience that gays do make a choice. I’ve lived alternately in San Francisco and New York City for 35 years.

    Gay male activists have argued consistently that sexual identity is innate. Lesbian activists have quite often argued to the contrary. Feminist lesbian activists of the 1990s, in fact, argued that lesbian orientation was the result of physical and sexual abuse by fathers. I’ve read the lit and attended some functions. It was not uncommon for speakers at lesbian activist events to argue that women should choose to become lesbians in order to escape the physical abuse of men.

    Gay men, in my personal experience, have often told me that I am a fool for being straight, and that I should consider choosing to be gay. I am a “fool” because, being straight, I must live with the sexual withholding of women and suffer responsibility for women and children. In other words, gay men have suggested strongly to me that I could choose to be gay. This suggests to me that they made that choice.

    The question of whether homosexuality is innate or chosen is far from decided.

  6. Stephen, I’ll rephrase that to say it’s not certain that people choose to be gay or straight, since it is controversial. In any case, it does not change the underlying issue, which is whether groups can have rights other than what they have as individuals. I think the answer is clearly no, and that group rights should not be included in civics unless it’s as a controversial subject.