Getting to ‘Yes’ on civics education
Too many Americans know little history and less civics, but efforts to correct those deficits have collapsed because of partisan differences over what should be taught and why. In the absence of a consensus on a one-size-fits-all curriculum, the most feasible approach is to empower school districts, individual schools, departments, and teachers to improve students’ understanding of our governing principles, institutions, and history, and enhance their ability to “create a more perfect Union” by enabling them to evaluate multiple perspectives on difficult issues, with engaging pedagogies.
The need for better civics education is clear. Only seven states require a full year of civics instruction in high school; 13 states have “no requirement at all.” The federal government spends $50 per student on STEM education each year, but only five cents per student on civics, down 90 percent since 2000.
Less than one in four eighth grade students demonstrates proficiency in civics; only 15 percent are proficient in history. Less than half of Americans can name all three branches of government; only 54 percent understand that a 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court becomes the law of the land. Most Americans “would earn an ‘F’ on the U.S. citizenship exam.”
For decades, levels of civic engagement have been declining, with fewer Americans participating in community organizations, unions, and religious institutions. Roughly “60 percent of rural young Americans — as well as almost a third of urban and suburban young Americans” now live in “civic deserts.” Only one in five Americans trusts the federal government “to do what is right.”
Bipartisan efforts to strengthen civics education have been unsuccessful. In March 2021, more than 300 experts with diverse political views and funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities released a “Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy,” providing guidance for a civics curriculum. The Roadmap calls for an “account of U.S. constitutional democracy that is honest about the wrongs of the past without falling into cynicism, and appreciative of the founding of the United States without tipping into adulation.” It was promptly endorsed by six former secretaries of education, both Republicans and Democrats, and over 120 civic organizations.
That same month, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) introduced the Civics Secures Democracy Act, calling for an annual investment of $1 billion to “expand access to civics and history education in schools across the country.”
Conservative activists promptly gave the Roadmap an “F+” and described the Civics Secures Democracy Act as a vehicle “to impose both Critical Race Theory and ‘Action Civics’ — vocational training for ideologically partisan protest and lobbying — upon America’s schools.” To prove the legislation’s malign intent, critics cited a separate civics and history grant competition in which the Department of Education referenced with approval the New York Times’ “1619 Project” and the anti-racism work of scholar Ibram X. Kendi, both anathema to the right. Although the department backed down following “a national outcry from conservatives,” these same conservatives continue to view almost every reform proposal as a “Trojan horse” for left-wing indoctrination. “It’s standard left-wing practice to speak in traditional liberal terms,” one critic complained, “while letting radical content filter into a project at the implementation stage, after public attention has waned.”
As a result, the “Roadmap” and the Civics Secures Democracy Act have run into the same obstacles that doomed the last serious attempt to formulate national standards 30 years ago. Developed over two years and 6,000 drafts, that proposal provoked a “firestorm of controversy,” and the Senate voted to condemn it 99-1.
Several states have now decided to go their own way. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has pushed an initiative that critics describe as “ideologically driven with strong ‘Christian fundamentalist’ overtones.” In Texas, proposed legislation requires schools to teach “informed American patriotism.”
Instruction whose essence is “appreciation” of a sanitized version of America rather than an informed understanding of American ideals and the gap between aspirations and realities is no way to teach civics or history.
Neither is instruction that ignores or downplays founding principles — or the progress made in attempts to better realize them.
Conservatives say they want to ban “indoctrination,” but seldom pause to consider what that means. All education involves selecting and imparting information “from someone’s point of view.” To a fundamentalist Christian, teaching evolution in a biology class might be seen as indoctrination.
Teachers are in the best position to make judgments about curricula and pedagogy, but we should provide more resources, as the bi-partisan Cornyn-Coons bill tries to do, to assist them in addressing controversial topics.
The “Roadmap” and its “Pedagogy Companion” strive to move in this direction by offering an inquiry-based approach that incorporates “debate into the ways students and teachers can embrace the past.” Suggestions include mock elections, jury service, model Congresses, internships in local government, role-playing exercises (during, for example, the Constitutional Convention or the Supreme Court deliberations on Brown v. Board of Education), simulations, and team-based learning.
The goal should be not only to teach students the basics of civics and American history, but also to inculcate “the skills and virtues for productive civil disagreement.”
To slow or stop state legislatures and governors from restricting the teaching of so-called “divisive concepts,” banning books, or mandating “patriotic” education, and instead give teachers and administrators the authority to do what they have been hired to do — present information fairly and objectively with due regard for other perspectives — will not be easy. It may well require court challenges, petitions, rallies, prayer vigils, fiery speeches, mobilization of voters, and even strikes, tools of American democracy that have been used throughout our history to create a more perfect Union.
The legislation in Florida and Texas does not explicitly prevent public school students from learning about these integral aspects of our history, at least not yet. But when politicians are permitted to start down the path of sanitizing the past, anything’s possible.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of “Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.”
David Wippman is the President of Hamilton College.