(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In a recent conversation with a high-school student studying for her matriculation exam in civics, I asked whether she enjoyed the subject. Her frank reply was: “It’s so boring and not at all relevant to my life,” and she added that her opinion was shared by her classmates. I do not know if her views are representative of all students, however, as the head of the Civic Studies Department at a teacher training college, I find it difficult to understand how civics can be a boring subject for the average Israeli student. After all, it is one of the few subjects that deal directly with values, ethics and moral dilemmas affecting every single individual.
Can you think of more relevant issues to our lives than the Amona outpost, the Beduin population in the Negev and the question of applying sovereignty in the State of Israel? Are we not obliged to discuss the nexus of power and politics with our students, even if only on a superficial level, in order to acquaint them with the realities of life in the State of Israel? The pressure of completing material for the exam and other distractions pose a challenge for civics teachers wishing to discuss such topics, but we must rise to this important challenge.
Pay it Forward is a fascinating movie starring Kevin Spacey about educating students to good citizenship.
A social science teacher gives his 7th grade civics class an assignment to devise and put into action a project that will change society for the better. One of the students, Trevor, initiates the “Pay it Forward” plan in which the recipient of a favor does a new favor to another person rather than repaying the favor, thus widening the impact of good deeds. Participants’ social awareness and commitment to others in both their close and wider environment increases as the project spreads. Trevor meets a tragic fate at the end of the movie when he is fatally stabbed trying to protect his friend from being bullied. However the ending is not relevant to our discussion.
The civics lesson can and must be a springboard for social and public activism. It can and must be the platform for thought-provoking political discussions about the current events that unfold on a daily basis.
The civics lesson is where our students should learn about respectful dialogue even on contentious matters.
Minister Naftali Bennett, involving citizens in the country’s affairs is a prerequisite for creating and promoting civic awareness and dialogue, especially in Israel’s splintered society. This is even more important in a country that proudly defines its national and Jewish identity as being a democratic one. To increase civic awareness the first step for you to take, Minister Bennett, is recommending that civics teachers begin each lesson with a discussion on current affairs. The issues arising from these discussions will then be linked to the lesson plan. As civics teachers, this is our obligation to our students and society.
We are failing in our duty as civics and social science teachers if we just teach the material necessary for passing the matriculation exam. The official syllabus often focuses on abstract ideas and philosophical principles that bear little relevance to the pressing issues of the day. We are obliged to find the correct balance between the two needs. Educating our students to civic responsibility will awaken their curiosity, prevent ignorance, reduce fear and may even lower the intensity of societal tensions.
Mr. Bennett, take note.
The author is head of the Civic Studies Department at Herzog Academic College.