A New Look for Civics Lessons

According to a survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, only two out of every five Americans could name all three branches of the federal government and one in five couldn’t name even a single branch. This is better than it has been in past years, but the survey unequivocally shows that Americans really need to know more than they do about how their country works. Fortunately, there is a solution.

High school civics classes, as you’d expect, make a big difference in an adult’s knowledge on the topic. With that in mind, Florida Representative Alcee L. Hastings, along with 62 cosponsors, has introduced a bill to allocate additional funding for civics classes as a means of addressing this issue. Rep. Hastings, however, is not the only one tackling the problem. The Center for Cartoon Studies might seem an unlikely ally in the push to increase civics awareness, but they could very well be the key to getting kids — and adults — up to speed on the way government works.

The CCS has written and illustrated a 32-page comic book entitled This is What Democracy Looks Like: A Graphic Guide to Governance. Funded via a Kickstarter project, the comic strives to teach students how the government works and what their part in it is and can be. CCS Director James Sturm, himself a cartoonist, notes that “Comics can engage and inform even the most reluctant of readers.” He believes that this comic can help fill the need for more civics education.

Copies of the book are being given to schools as the team from CCS travels the midwest this fall, visiting schools and helping teachers put the comic to use in their classrooms. Copies can also be purchased from the Center individually as well as in classroom packs or you can download the comic as a PDF for free. The CCS has developed a free teacher’s guide with lesson plans that include objectives, common core standards, and activities.

The folks at the Center for Cartoon Studies are not the only ones trying to increase civic awareness and knowledge through comics, however. Zach Weiner, the artist behind the popular webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (or SMBC) and his brother Greg Weiner, a political science professor, spent a year creating Laws and Sausages, a webcomic version of Political Science 101.

Aimed, perhaps, at a slightly older audience, L&S covers a number of topics including the separation of powers, impeachment, the electoral college, and immigration restrictions. It is an entertaining guide to the way our government is supposed to work. Laws and Sausages is filled with Weiner’s signature snark and humour but, unlike SMBC, the Weiner brothers have tried to make the comic impartial. Their hope is that L&S is “a comic about politics, without the politics.”

The title, by the way, comes from the lawyer-poet John Godfrey Saxe who said that “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” Personally, as distasteful as some of those who make the laws might be, I think it’s extremely important that we all know how they are made and how our government works — or at least how it’s supposed to work. As for sausages, however, you’re on your own there.

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