Saturday, April 12, 2014

Civic Institute: A Supreme Experience

As a teacher I'm trained in imparting information to others, among other things. Today I learned I have more in common with lawyers than I ever guessed! I had the opportunity to participate in the first Civics Institute at the University of Montana along with about twenty others, including pre-service and in-service teachers, law students, and high school students. The most interesting part of the morning was watching the Montana Supreme Court hear the oral arguments in the City of Whitefish v Phillips, et al, a land case too complicated to explain. Here's a news story that outlines some of it. The lawyers providing the oral arguments have some of the same tasks as teachers, such as the clear expression of information and ideas, a need to answer questions quickly and accurately, and the ability to recover from distractions (in the form of interruptions by the justices, mainly!). At the end of the court session, I waited until the justices had exited the court and sneaked up to the table on the stage. I tied my first feather to a microphone where the justices had been seated.

My role in the day's events was to share some remarks related to civic education after the court session. I am passionate about this, so it was easy to make these points:

1) Teachers are public servants. As such, one of our roles is to support our students in becoming participants in our democracy. For example, when I teach To Kill a Mockingbird, students investigate the historical background related to Jim Crow, gain a legal education related to discrimination (how do we get from Plessy v Ferguson to Brown v Board?), and learn about Constitutional amendments. This information can help these students make better decisions about candidates as well as referenda and initiatives because they are more knowledgeable about history and the legal process to the extent that it is participatory.

2) In Indian Country, civic education is not only more complicated but it's also more loaded. The stakes are higher, usually for tribal people, and the implications are layered with history and fringed with federal Indian policy. As authentic examples, I shared my own reservation home-ownership as a non-Indian - made possible by the Flathead Allotment Act of 1904 - and the taxes my mother pays for use of water in the irrigation ditch on her reservation property, water which is controlled by the Tribes. The ditches were built as part of the Flathead Irrigation Project eight decades ago. For my classroom example, I brought up The Round House, a novel I teach with upper-level students, whose plot is predicated on the complexity of tribal jurisdiction. Students learn about the intersection between tribal, state, and federal jurisdiction, the Major Crimes Act, and Public Law 280 when we study the features of that story. This reading helps my students understand the ways laws function on the reservation where we live.

3) The ability to participate meaningfully in our democracy, or civic education, is the most important skill we can teach. Of course this skill incorporates reading, writing, and math; it means Indian Education for All; it requires critical thinking. I argue not that students should learn only about civics, but that it should be layered into our curricula. We can use the minutes in our classrooms to teach fundamentals, but also to ignite in students a sense of responsibility to the society that has been built for them.

I'm so glad my first stop on the Warrior Trail was such a momentous one: I saw parts of American democracy at work, I witnessed individuals with such sophisticated communication skills and knowledge of their subject, and I spoke to teachers and students about the importance of civic education in our schools. Thanks for joining me on this journey!


  1. You use the word democracy and here is a letter to the editor I wrote in response a person who used that same term.
    We are not nor have we ever been a Democracy. We are a Constitutional Representative Republic as our founders formed us. It is the rule of law and not the rule of majority. Democracy as Mr. Lentz quoted from Webster is a rule of majority and this becomes mob rule. This is not what are founder wanted for us. The word Democracy is used by many including our politicians. Perhaps this is what they want us to be.

    could you give me your take on this. I have many quotes from ou founders regarding democracy and Republic.

  2. Yes, you are right about the terminology. And perhaps it's ironic that I used an imprecise term in a post about the importance of civic education! However, my point remains that teaching students to navigate our governance system is one of the most important aspects of public education. Thank you for your comment!