Law Professor and Polisci Students Reflect on the Country’s Dire Lack of Civic Education

By Jillian Waterhouse, Staff Writer—

On March 23, law professor Angela Mae Kupenda met with University of Tennessee at Chattanooga political science students over Zoom to discuss her work concerning the United States legal system and Constitution as they relate to black political thought. 

Kupenda is a professor at the Mississippi College School of Law, where she specializes in constitutional rights, the first amendment, civil rights and race under the law. 

Kupenda’s recent work involves learning a platform that is new to her: YouTube. In an effort to decolonize legal and constitutional education, Kupenda began an online lecture series in which she breaks down complex topics to an open audience free of charge. Born of the isolated COVID-19 lockdown, Kupenda has been steadily uploading educational videos recorded in her home office for nearly a year. 

Seeking feedback on her project, she met with local political science students to discuss factors which inspired her to start the YouTube channel, such as the importance of accessible education, the necessity of broad constitutional understanding and the intersectionality of personal identities under the law. 

Perhaps the most significant driving factor behind Kupenda’s YouTube channel is what she believes to be a societal lack of civic education. An educator herself, she explained that her understanding of social justice has not always been as inclusive as it has become over the course of her life.

 “I grew up in the Deep South, and I really didn’t analyze issues related to class,” she said. “To me, it seemed to be about race, and I was all about gender. I grew up with people who were financially similar. Dr. Deardorff taught me so much about class.”

Dr. Michelle Deardorff, department head of political science at UTC, hosted the discussion with Kupenda. Deardorff elaborated on the urgent need for political education that is accessible to people of all financial backgrounds in the United States. Without an accurate understanding of the government and its systems, she worries citizens will be unable to hold their elected officials and government accountable, much less challenge the systems in place themselves. 

In a 2016 survey conducted by Annenberg Public Policy Center, it was found that one in every four members of the American public was unable to correctly identify the three branches of government. Combined with a growing distrust of the government among the American public, as reflected in a 2020 survey conducted by Pew Research Center which reported that only 20% of Americans trust the government to “do the right thing,” U.S. democracy is in danger. 

Democratic backsliding, while looming as a threat for years prior, has officially come to the forefront of American politics as an issue that must be addressed—quickly. Though claims of widespread voter fraud have repeatedly been found unsubstantiated, nearly 80% of voters who cast their ballots for Donald Trump in the 2021 presidential election believe the election was not free and fair. The disbelief, claims of voter fraud, and refusal to accept election results are found almost exclusively within the Republican party. Direct threats to American democracy such as polarization, contested citizenship, income inequality and executive aggrandizement, have dangerously converged at a time of weakened national political education. 

According to the Center for American Progress, only nine states require at least one year of civic education in schools, while ten states have no civic education requirement at all. Of the states which provide civic education courses in high school, none have curriculums which focus on experiential learning or local problem solving components, both factors found to be essential in building skills for political engagement. While students may seek to improve their political knowledge through a college education, rising tuition costs are a block in the road for many. As asserted by a 2018 report from Forbes, the price of a college education is increasing almost eight times faster than wages. The difficulty of reaching those who have been unable to receive civic education has forced educators to rethink their teaching and outreach methods.

“How do you reach individuals with the intent of making systemic and structural change?” Deardorff asked. 

Attendees of the discussion were eager to chime in, detailing their personal experiences with growth in political and civic knowledge. UTC student Paige Kuczek shared her own story. 

“We need change,” Kuczek said. “There needs to be reform. I was ignorant at one point and I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things. Knowledge is power, and is therefore foundational in impacting anything.” 

Kupenda, delighted to hear Kuczek’s story, affirmed how accounts of similar journeys have inspired her own work over the years. 

“As Americans, we must all hold ourselves accountable,” Kupenda said. “Most of us have benefited from inequality and injustice—We must grasp it at the root.”

Kupenda’s career has been dedicated to political education, whether it be teaching law students in the classroom or strangers online. She spoke of the uncertainty she initially felt in posting to YouTube, as she may have encountered difficulties through disagreements from those watching her videos from differing perspectives and levels of education. However, Kupenda decided this uncertainty is exactly why open political education and discussion is necessary, especially now. She explained that different life experiences, viewpoints and skill sets are incredibly beneficial in activism movements, as they create an intersectional approach towards social justice.

“If we’re gonna dismantle the house, we have to come at it from every angle,” she said.

For Kupenda, education is a potential solution to the rising inequality, injustice, and ignorance in America. Through learning the history of oppression in the U.S. and studying the Constitution, citizens may begin to understand how they can make a difference through activism. To challenge the system, one must first understand the system. Kupenda offered guidance to the students listening.

“Perhaps education is the vehicle, in all forms it can take, so we can all be shaken from our ignorance and so our eyes and our hearts can be opened,” she said “It’s past time for us to address and discuss these issues.” 

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