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Using newspapers to combat 'civic illiteracy' in students

Should college students spend more time reading newspapers, and not just the sports section?

Ernest Boyer and Fred M. Hechinger, in a recent report for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, think they should. In fact they fear what they call ''civic illiteracy'' unless students change their reading habits and include thoughtful perusal of a newspaper.

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''Civic illiteracy'' means lack of knowledge about controversial national and world problems, including the pros and cons of such issues as the choice between guns and butter, clean air and industrial production, and human rights and the commission of human wrongs.

It is true that study of the past, in history courses, should help us avoid repeating errors. That is, unless we accept the cynic's appraisal: ''What we learn from history is that we don't learn from history.''

Study of political science should produce generation after generation of knowledgable citizens who cherish the right to vote and never fail to cast that precious ballot.

Courses in literature and philosophy should provide students with examples of the best that has been thought and said. Such courses should also teach the need to combine realism and idealism when decisions must be made on complicated problems.

But students in college (and I would add students in high school, at any rate seniors) can take courses in all of these fields and yet not be aware of problems facing our nation and the world today, as well as controversial solutions of such problems. Boyer and Hechinger consider ''civic illiteracy'' to be a threat to good citizenship and therefore to our democracy.

Somewhat hesitantly I suggest a course in college, and perhaps in high school , that might help produce good citizens, or to follow along with current phrasing - civic literates.

I am not sure what this course would be called. It might be ''Current Events, '' but I would prefer something of greater depth, as well as freshness, newness. By the way, I would choose ''newness'' over ''novelty.'' It should be a course that I hope would have lasting, and not ephemeral, effect.

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The most unusual feature of the course would be the textbook studied. What would it be? It would be a daily newspaper, or even two newspapers with different social and political views.

In the first meeting of the class the newspaper or papers to be read would be told, along with reasons for the choice. Then some background information would be given about the wire services, the editorials, letters to the editor, local and syndicated columnists, political cartoons - almost everything but advertisements, the sports section, and the obituaries.

Once the course got under way, there would be little or no lecturing. Instead , there would be open discussion of whatever had caught the students' attention. Different opinions would be sought, and controversy would be encouraged. The aim would be awareness of local, national, and world events, as well as alternative and often conflicting solutions.

It would be hoped that, after the course, students would have acquired the habit of careful, thoughtful reading of a daily newspaper, or several newspapers. ''Civic illiteracy'' would have been overcome.

It would benefit our citizens and our democracy.

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