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.