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
economicsterms 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 problemsor that the burdens of regulation
are worsethen 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.