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January 31, 2003

a textbook idea

I've been writing my proposal for an innovative high school civics textbook. I'm tentatively calling it Civics for Citizens. Unlike any competing text, it will combine challenging academic content with exercises and materials designed to help students experience civic life through discussions and community service. Furthermore, in the part devoted to academic instruction, Civics for Citizens will present an unusual selection of topics. Many high school civics and government texts contain difficult and detailed information about the structure and process of government, but they never introduce students to basic concepts from social theory, philosophy, and economics—terms such as "externality," "utilitarianism," and "free rider." Yet these are the most influential ideas in policy debates among researchers, regulators, and legislators. If young citizens never learn these ideas, then they cannot participate in (or even follow) crucial debates and must leave the outcomes to elites.

Consider the concept of an "externality," which seems at first glance to be too technical for a civics class. Sometimes, a voluntary exchange among free individuals creates harms for others who did not agree to the deal. For instance, companies produce goods that their customers willingly buy, but they also generate pollution that affects everyone. This is an example of an externality. If you think that externalities are serious problems, then you may want the government to interfere to mitigate the damage. On the other hand, if you think that externalities are mostly not serious problems—or that the burdens of regulation are worse—then you may want less government interference. The debate about how much the government should regulate is perhaps the central political argument in modern times, and it rests on conflicting ideas about externalities. As you go through life, your personal experiences and your understanding of current events may help you to decide what you think about externalities and regulations. But first you need to understand the underlying concepts.

January 31, 2003 5:01 PM | category: advocating civic education | Comments


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