I’m Roneka Matheny, but you can call me ProfessorNeka

 To be clear, that is not a “Dr.” Dre thing, I have actually taught African American Studies and Political Science at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina for six of the last ten years.  I have a Master’s Degree (2008) in Political Science from The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and a Bachelor’s Degree (2005) in International Studies from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.



Why America Needs A Citizenship 101 Course

I can still recount my earliest political memory in vivid detail.  I was eight years old, and my family was gathered around the television in our living room for one of the programs we watched regularly: The Arsenio Hall Show.  I fell in love with that night’s special guest, a presidential candidate named Bill Clinton.  (This is embarrassing and uncomfortable to admit now, but it’s the truth.)  He played the saxophone and told jokes, and I thought that he would make the coolest President ever.  That year was the first time that my parents took me with them to the polls to vote, and I was so excited to press the button next to his name.  

At eight years old, pressing a button to support someone you like seems like such a simple act.  I had no idea how complex the concept of political participation was or what combination of factors had motivated my parents’ decision to vote that day.  With childlike innocence, I assumed that everyone always showed up on a special day to press buttons for their friends.  I also assumed that everyone was always as excited as I was to do it.  Needless to say, I learned as I grew older just how wrong I was about both.

Depending on how it is defined, voter turnout in the United States typically ranges from about 45 to 65 percent of the population in Presidential Elections.  This rate of participation is lower than in many other developed countries, and to be honest, it’s not what you would expect in the “land of the free and home of the brave.”  Over the years, political scientists have done extensive research trying to figure out what makes people vote.  The 1972 book Participation in America and the 1980 book Who Votes? introduce us to the “SES Model.”  SES stands for socioeconomic status, and the model shows us that income, occupation, and education can be powerful predictors of who votes.  The “Civic Voluntarism Model” came along later in 1995 and helped us to develop a more complex picture of the “likely voter”—one that included civic skills, trust in the government, and social networks (in the non-technological sense), in addition to socioeconomic status.  

For scholars studying political participation, these books are about as important as the Bible on Sunday morning.  Yet somehow, what I consider to be the Holy Grail has been buried in their research findings for decades, receiving far less attention than it deserves: political education.  The research shows that the more political education a person has, the more likely they are to vote and to participate in politics more generally.  The research also confirms that there is a profound lack of political education among the American public.

As an Adjunct Professor of Political Science, I have observed the evidence for these research findings with my own eyes.  I watched my students’ engagement and participation in politics increase as I taught them about the history, structure, and functions of the American government.  The students often told me that they found themselves engaging in more political conversations with their family and friends, and they were always eager to ask me questions about events unfolding in Washington, DC.  Despite their increased political engagement, I have to admit that I found the lack of political information my students entered the classroom with to be astonishing.  

I witnessed the reality of the research findings as an election worker in 2016 and 2018 as well.  I was responsible for answering the phone calls of voters with concerns regarding the upcoming Presidential and Midterm Elections.  I interacted with hundreds of Charleston County, South Carolina voters and found a striking similarity between callers from all walks of life—rich and poor, young and old, white and nonwhite, educated and inarticulate alike—nearly all of the voters I spoke with demonstrated a surprising lack of political education.  I was repeatedly asked the most basic questions about completing and counting ballots, the role of political parties, and the duties of important political officeholders.  Most of the questions I received should be answered in every high school American Government course. 

And therein lies the rub: My students at the College of Charleston entered the classroom with a lack of basic political knowledge because political education (also known as “Civics”) is no longer prioritized in the K-12 educational system.  Instead, students are expected to gain fundamental political knowledge from their families, communities, and the courses they will take at the college level.  But what about all of the American voters that never go to college?  What about all of the communities with low levels of college attendance?  What about all of the college students who aren’t interested in Political Science?  They are all unfortunate consequences.  

It is important to understand that widespread ignorance that exists about our political system has been around for decades.  US News & World Report recently declared that South Carolina has the worst educational system in the country, so it is tempting to dismiss my experiences in the classroom and the elections office as the result of generations of bad public policy in my home state.   However, a 1996 book called What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters finds a similar lack of political education in the nationally representative samples that it analyzes.  It is still one of the most comprehensive attempts to measure American political knowledge to this day.  The National Assessment of Educational Progress (also known as “the Nation’s Report Card”) has been collecting information about the academic progress of America’s children for the federal government since 1969.  It conducted a Civics Assessment of nearly 10,000 high school seniors from across the country in 2010 and found disturbingly low levels of political knowledge across the board.  Student scores were classified as either basic, proficient, or advanced.  64% of high school seniors were classified as basic or above.  While that is more than half, it is no reason to celebrate.  It means that more than a third of our students are failing to earn even the most BASIC level of political education.  Even more discouraging is the fact that only 24% of the high school seniors tested were classified as proficient, and they are all around the age to become eligible to vote! 

All of the data can’t be wrong when it confirms that America’s lack of political education is a huge problem.  So what can we do about it?  The obvious solution would be to return to 1950s-era Civics classes.  We could have a team of academic professionals create a curriculum and adapt it for every K-12 grade level.  If offered uniformly across the country, it would take some time, but it would put us well on our way to fixing the problem.  Unfortunately, it’s never going to happen.  There is so much grassroots resistance to top-down educational reform in this country that any such effort (especially one that could be construed as “political”) would go down in flames faster than Common Core.  

But what if there were another way?

The Citizenship 101 Digital Learning Experience

What if there were a Twenty-First Century solution for this decades-old problem?  

Smartphones, tablets, laptops, and the other devices available to us today provide us with nearly unlimited access to information.  In fact, it is tempting to wonder whether Google search is really the ultimate solution to the nation’s widespread lack of political education.  Unfortunately, the answer is no.  The real solution isn’t that simple.  Just as more access to medical information online over the past few decades hasn’t turned us all into doctors, more access to political information online hasn’t transformed us all into political experts (despite what you see on Twitter).  Just because you have access to more information doesn’t mean that all of that information is truthful.  And without the proper political education, how would you go about separating the good information from the bad information?  Perhaps by classifying whatever your political party says as good information and whatever the opposition says as bad.  This is the situation that we now find ourselves in with today’s politics.  Too many of the American people lack a basic understanding of government, and they lack the proper context and history to think critically about what they are witnessing on the political stage.  They don’t know the right questions to ask of their politicians to hold them accountable or how to make sense of the answers they receive.  So when in doubt, they are clinging to the one thing about politics that they still understand, the Democrat versus Republican partisan divide.  The solution to America’s problem is therefore not a bucketload of random political information.  Instead, the information must be organized into a course that provides the learner with political context and history, as well as basic concepts and vocabulary.  

Political Science professors at colleges and universities across the country are starting to offer online versions of their introductory-level courses.  This is helping to alleviate America’s problem, but there are significant issues that limit the effort’s impact.  First, the courses are usually only available to a small group of tuition-paying students enrolled at a particular institution.  This restricts any single course’s potential enrollment to hundreds instead of the millions that need to be reached.  Second, each course is different.  Professors have the ability to design their own courses.  Those designs are usually based on the textbook(s) they choose to use, the specific requirements of their particular department or institution, and the topics they think are important enough to cover.  Everything is then organized into the order they choose.  This variation is good for college students in the short term, but over the long term, it prevents the American people from having a uniform understanding of their government and political history and opens the door for bad actors to prey on people’s ignorance.  A final limitation of online courses lies in their dependence on interacting with individual professors, which ties student learning to a particular teaching schedule, a final grade, and course credit.

The real solution to America’s widespread lack of political education can not be found in a simple online search, a traditional classroom, or an online course; instead, it must be a digital learning experience that combines elements from all three.  

I am designing Citizenship 101 to be just the kind of digital learning experience that America needs.  My hope is that it will one day become a tool that millions of Americans of all ages from all walks of life will use to learn about government and politics.  Anyone at any time will be able to access it at no charge from their personal computers, tablets, smartphones, or other devices.  My hope is that instead of doing this for a grade or college credit, people will go to Citizenship 101 out of a sense of civic duty, to increase their own knowledge, (and maybe eventually to compete with their friends on the quiz scores).

 The Citizenship 101 Digital Learning Experience will begin with an initial assessment test.  This test will ask the learner a few questions to help them determine where their learning experience should begin.  Some people may need to begin with basic vocabulary for instance, while others may just need a refresher on Constitutional powers.  The learner’s age will be asked in the assessment so the explanations and examples they see can be tailored to their age group.  After the assessment, learners will choose from a list of course sections that each cover a group of related political topics.  The learner may choose to experience the entire course from beginning to end or simply search for topics they are interested in learning more about.  Within each course section, the learner will have a variety of ways to interact with information about the topics being covered.  They can watch a video of a full classroom lecture about the section or they can watch short animated videos about each topic individually.  They can read a detailed outline of the section as a whole or they can choose to read only about the key terms and concepts they are interested in.  They can connect to a list of resources about each topic for more information.  And when they are ready, they can take a quiz about each section to see how much they have learned.  All of this makes Citizenship 101 more than just an online course; it is a self-directed, digital learning experience that is tailored to the needs of each individual learner.  

Since Citizenship 101 has the potential to become a powerful learning tool, it is important that its content not be based on a single textbook or on my personal feelings about the material.  Instead, I have decided to base the content on the Civics Assessment of high school seniors conducted by the government-run National Assessment of Educational Progress discussed earlier.  The NAEP provides us with a detailed list of the topics and concepts necessary to achieve basic, proficient, and advanced levels of civic education.  Using this framework, Citizenship 101 will seek to increase the civic proficiency level of the general American public.

According to the NAEP:

“Twelfth grade students performing at the Basic level should have an understanding of what is meant by civil society, constitutional government, and politics...they should understand the fundamental principles of American constitutional government. These students should be able to explain the way that political parties, interest groups, and the media, contribute to elections, and they should be able to point out sources of information about public policy issues. They should understand that both power and rights must be limited in a free society. They should be able to identify those traits that make people responsible citizens, and they should be able to describe forms of political participation available in democracy and recognize reasons that such participation is important....Finally, they should be familiar with international issues that affect the United States....”

“Twelfth grade students performing at the Proficient level should have a good understanding of how constitutions can limit the power of governments and support the rule of law...and they should be able to describe the structure and functions of American government. These students should be able to identify issues in which fundamental democratic values and principles are in conflict...and they should be able to take and defend positions on these issues. They should be able to evaluate ways that law protects individual rights and promotes the common good in American society. They should understand how the application of fundamental principles of American constitutional democracy has expanded participation in public life, and they should be able to explain how citizens can work individually and collectively to monitor and influence public policy. These students should understand the importance and means of participation in political life at the national, state, and local levels. They should be able to evaluate contributions made by political parties, interest groups, and the media to the development of public policy, and they should be able to explain how public service and political leadership contribute to American democracy. They should understand how American foreign policy is made and carried out, and they should be able to evaluate the performance of major international organizations. Finally, the students should be able to discuss reason for and consequences of conflicts that arise when international disputes cannot be resolved peacefully.”

These are the topics and concepts that will be covered in the Citizenship 101 Digital Learning Experience.

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If you believe that America needs better political education, please show your support by donating! With your help, we can make sure that this valuable tool is available to the public by Fall 2020.