By Austin Block
Most of us probably agree that our government is pretty important. Like most reasonable people, we recognize that an organization that takes our money, uses it to offer public services, and makes laws that spell out exactly what we can and can’t do is worth our attention.
But if you were to look solely at the number of seniors enrolled in AP United States Government and Politics, Harvard-Westlake’s only United States government class, you might incorrectly conclude that we just don’t care about how our country is run. Of the 282 members of the senior class, only about 70 take government. My eighth period AP US Government class has a total of nine students. Now that seventh grade civics has been eliminated, it is likely that many students will go all the way through Harvard-Westlake without ever taking a government class.
For some reason, our interest in government just doesn’t translate into an interest in taking government classes. And that’s a real problem. If we want our elected officials to fix our problems, we need to be knowledgeable enough about the system these politicians work within to pick the best candidates and propositions on the ballot.
It seems likely that many politically savvy students feel they know enough about politics to vote intelligently without taking a government class. Though it is true that Harvard-Westlake students are pretty well informed about politics, I would argue that most still don’t know enough.
News websites and political commentary, two of our main sources of political information, often skim lightly over complex, meaty issues while favoring the superficial, simple, conflict-ridden or inflammatory.
They also avoid explaining how the American political sphere actually works. I doubt many students realize that lobbyists often help write legislation that is relevant to their clients or that they know just how many advantages an incumbent has when running for reelection.
I thought I was fairly knowledgeable about politics and government before this year, but one of the most important things I have learned in class this year is just how much I don’t know about government.
The simple solution to this problem is to make government a mandatory course of study at Harvard-Westlake. According to the California Department of Education website, the California Education Code requires that students at public high schools take at least one-semester of American government in order to graduate. Why shouldn’t we be held to the same standard as other California schools?
There are a few ways a one-semester government class could be squeezed into upper school students’ crammed schedules that would have a minimal impact on student workloads, class choices, and social lives.
Perhaps the best solution is to pair a fun, relaxed, one or two day per week government class with Choices and Challenges in sophomore year. Homework could be minimal. At the end of the semester, students could complete one small final project, such as a short research paper on a political issue of interest.
A one day per week, low-stress class in junior year wouldn’t be that much of a burden either. Students who commit to taking the AP US Government class could skip out of this class.
Though the class would ideally be for seniors, many of whom can actually vote, the strains of the college process combined with the absolute intellectual freedom seniors want make this idea impractical. Though adding this class would probably require the school to hire an additional social sciences teacher, the subject is important enough to warrant this investment. The class could also merge into the new Kutler Center program, in which case the new faculty hired for the Kutler Center might be able to teach government as well.
Like any other change to the Harvard-Westlake curriculum, fitting a new, mandatory government class into school life would involve resolving some potentially unpleasant logistical issues. However, it’s clear that something needs to be done. The school can’t send its students to the voting booth and to college without a solid background in one of the most important facets of society.
Without this background, our votes won’t always reflect our own values. And if that’s the case, who knows what repercussions our votes could have?