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Ideas | James Piltch

Why Boston once required civics classes

Holding an American flag and his naturalization certificate, new citizen Bryan Aleman waited to have his picture taken after a ceremony in Chattanooga, Tenn.C.B. Schmelter/Chattanooga Times Free Press/AP/File

No one is born knowing how to be a good citizen. The best treatment for our democracy’s current ailments — from polarization to vulgarity — is the kind of civics education that most American students no longer get.

Officially, civics is alive and well. Many schools, including many of the top schools in Boston, have civic preparation as a nominal part of their mission statements.

But civics isn’t a required course at flagships like Boston Latin, English High, or Jeremiah Burke. A bill circulating in the Massachusetts Senate would require students of all ages to undertake projects focused on civic action. Left unstated in the legislation is the kind of citizens schools should be in the business of creating.


As Boston considers that question, it need look no further than its own rich history on the subject. For most of the past century, civic education was a major part of the American curriculum.The Great Depression, in particular, was a high point for the subject, as a nation fighting off its own ills of poverty, despair, and political unrest, sought to define what it meant to be a constructive member of the community.

To that end, first graders in Boston learned about character and fourth graders learned about the importance of being a good family member, while sixth graders studied the Constitution. These courses were based on an idea of citizenship that focused not just on civic preparation, but also on economic skill.

In later grades, students learned more concrete ways they could be good citizens. In seventh grade, the book “Citizenship and Boston” outlined all of the ways students could make the city a better place to live. Showing up at the polls was only part of it. A handful of pages covered voting, but an entire chapter explained why laborers’ hard-work, love for their city, and selflessness were absolutely essential to Boston’s history of self-government.


Ninth grade, the last year of the city’s common civics curriculum, built on this idea. “My Worth to the World,” the featured textbook, illustrated that to be a good citizen was to make one’s community a better place. Students could achieve this lofty goal through their work, by purchasing of goods, running for office, or helping a neighbor. Ideally, all of the above. One illustration depicted students with diplomas dutifully marching from high school to a factory. For the worker-citizen, work and civic life were unavoidably linked.

Of course, the pathways towards reponsible citizenship also diverged. At selective Boston Latin, students spent hours learning the classics and two years learning American history. At neighborhood schools, like Charlestown High and South Boston High, students spent up to six hours a day learning a commercial or vocational trade. In theory, all students would be prepared to contribute to a country and city that desperately needed their help.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these students’ economic fortunes turned out to be quite unequal. Nearly all Latin students attended college between 1935 and 1939, and almost 50 percent of them attended Harvard. Yet only a handful of girls — and not a single boy — from Charlestown High School attended university between 1936 and 1939. And while an advanced degree wasn’t a necessity in the era, the economic results for vocational students were dramatic. The average vocational graduate from Boston’s schools from the 1930’s made $14.50 a week, firmly in the bottom 25 percent of Boston’s male wage-earners. In its attempt to ensure all students could contribute to society, Boston’s schools also created two classes of worker-citizens.


Boston’s civic and vocational approach to school eventually faded, echoing a national decline in civics education that have largely fallen out of fashion by the end of the 1960s. Today, students are lucky if they take a course on the basic functioning of city and state government. Vocational schooling has faced its own challenges to stay relevant.

The inequities that the school system cemented during the Depression explain why people are hesitant to reintroduce mass vocational schooling. But a commitment to educational “equality” — a word that wasn’t mentioned at all in the school reports from the era — shouldn’t be confused with a vision of citizens as people who better communities, democracy, and the economy.

Indeed, civics and economics cannot be divorced. Today, the vast majority of financially insecure people do not vote. Given that 70 percent of Boston’s student body is economically disadvantaged, it’s likely that civics alone will not allow Boston’s students to reach their fullest potential as citizens. Although the committee’s highly vocational approach to schooling may have reinforced class divisions, Boston’s leadership was right to recognize that democratic participation is not an isolated aspect of life. In fact, it’s just a small part of being a citizen.


James Piltch is a writer road-tripping across the country talking to people about citizenship. His website is www.citizensstory.com