05/02/2011 03:18 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2011

Teach Youngsters Politics, Not Civics: Educate Them for the Realities of Citizenship

Take a close look at America's public school curricula sometime and you will discover how few courses help students cope with the real world they will face as adults. They are supposed to grow up to be citizens in a democracy but they are not being properly taught to deal with the politics in which citizenship takes place. Nor do they learn enough about the economy: neither the political one nor the one in which they must make a living.

Civics and social studies courses fill student heads with irrelevant political facts, like the number of states and the organization of the federal judiciary and the name of the current Secretary of Commerce. Probably the only economics instruction many will ever get is in home economics, wherever that is still taught.

But how do they learn how to be represented by our representative democracy and to make it work for them? They must be taught, among other things, how their representatives are elected and how to distinguish between truthful and meretricious campaign rhetoric. They need to learn how to have their ideas and demands listened to, and how to compete with the campaign funders, lobbyists and others whose have easier access to and influence on elected officials than they. Consequently, they should also be studying how economic power translates into political clout and other facets of political economy.

And how can students find out what they need to know as future workers? Prospective employees ought to learn how large and small businesses operate; how wages, salaries and benefits are set, how to protect their occupational safety, union and other rights. These days, they must also become informed about what jobs are being automated or outsourced.

As possible future employers, students need to understand labor, consumer and other markets. They have to be taught about how firms are organized, as well as how to treat workers and stockholders. Yet they must also understand how they can compete in the global economy.

Elementary versions of these courses could begin as early as young people become aware of the world beyond their families and peers and they should continue through college. Before the courses can be taught, however, curriculum makers must design and experiment with them and teachers may have to be trained to teach them.

Older students could actually participate in designing the courses, contributing to politics courses what they are encountering in teenage and school politics, including the power plays of bullying. Courses about the economy could benefit from what young people have come to know about the economic lives and problems of their families and friends.

But before the suggested courses can even be designed, they must be approved by principals, superintendents, school boards and the elected officials responsible for the schools. Most likely, the approvals will not always come easily, and one can imagine opposition from various groups in and out of school.

For example, school boards will face disputes about whether to teach real politics and economics or to limit the courses to the ideals of democracy and capitalism. Local and national pressure groups will demand that course plans, readings and other classroom media will not discriminate against their ideologies or interests. Someone will surely be on the lookout for imagined or actual socialist ideas,

Parent groups and other organizations will have their say too. Some may complain that their children's innocence is being violated by instruction about "dirty politics," or by discovering that not everyone will obtain the steady and well paying jobs available to past generations.

But these political disputes have educational payoffs, for as the arguments become public, they can also be used as first courses in actual politics and economics. They may even be more exciting courses than those which curriculum makers can design.

Education lacks magical powers, and courses about the world as it really functions should not be expected to change that world significantly. Still, over time they might help a little in making American democracy more representative and American capitalism more responsible.