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The Case for Civics Education: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You


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“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt in a 1938 speech to honor education week.

“The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church. That is not how our Founding Fathers intended it.”
– Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) in a speech to Colorado churchgoers on June 26, 2022.

These two statements reveal an alarming decline in knowledge about and confidence in our civic institutions, to include lawmakers who influence constituents with such misleading and false assertions as Rep. Boebert’s nearly comical rhetoric. How did we get here and how do we get out?

A Very Brief, Necessarily Selective History

“Civics” is generally defined as the study of the structure and institutions of government and of the rights and responsibilities of citizens therein. Such studies have been an essential component of civilization from Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome until now. 

In the 19th century United States, Horace Mann championed civics instruction in a free public system as necessary to unify increasingly diverse groups of students as immigration changed school populations. By the early 20th century, educational theorists, progressive John Dewey most notable among them, expanded on the notion, adding the importance of learning through relevant experience rather than merely learning factual information.

In the early decades of the 20th century this progressive approach to civics (and all other) education was broadly supplanted by a more “industrial,” standardized methodology that has persisted until today. 

Through the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, civics and/or government studies were curricular staples, focusing primarily on passively learning the structures and mechanisms of government along with the obligatory Pledge of Allegiance and patriotic songs like America the Beautiful and My Country ‘tis of Thee. It is of some cognitive interest to note that the lyrics and melodies of these songs have enjoyed far more longevity in the minds of the general public  than constitutional knowledge, demonstrating both the power of music and the essential role of learning through experience.

Beginning in the late ‘60s, civics education was merged with or supplanted by a more generic social studies curriculum. This was due in part to divisive skepticism about democratic institutions, sharpened by the Vietnam War and unrest over civil rights.

In the years since, civics education has waxed and waned. Since 2006, the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania has surveyed civics knowledge, and the results have revealed an alarming and precipitous decline, with a very slight uptick in the last two years. This annual survey of several thousand adults is conducted by an independent firm on behalf of Annenberg.

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How Bad Is It?

Even people in leadership positions within our civic structure misunderstand basic civics and Colorado’s Rep. Boebert is far from alone. 

In a recent interview, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) said, “Our government wasn’t set up for one group to have all three branches of government — wasn’t set up that way. You know, the House, the Senate, and the executive.” Any person in government who doesn’t know the three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—should not be in office. 

A mock exam conducted by The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in 2018 revealed that two-thirds of Americans could not pass the United States Citizenship Test. Even worse, 81% of those under age 45 failed. 

Sixty percent don’t know how many justices sit on the Supreme Court. Only 24% know why the colonists fought the British. And just for humor, 2% believe climate change caused the Cold War.

The statistical evidence of decline is exacerbated by a deepening ideological chasm and a persistent attack on the public education system itself. The ideological rift is illustrated by the contrasting approaches embodied in the 1619 Project and the 1776 Curriculum

The 1619 Project is based on a 2021 book, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, by Nikole Hannah-Jones with a related curriculum promoted by the New York Times. The 1619 Project aims to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States.”

As a response to the 1619 Project, the ultra-conservative Hillsdale College published the 1776 Curriculum in 2021, rejecting the premises of the 1619 Project. It sought to reassert the idea of American Exceptionalism and relegate slavery and racism to a sidebar in a grand and noble narrative.

A major presence on the ideological battlefield, Hillsdale College is behind a mushrooming network of Hillsdale Classical Schools. Hillsdale is one of a number of right-leaning organizations seeking to counter what they wrongly assert is the radical left-wing indoctrination exercised in America’s public schools. There are currently about 70 member or affiliated schools in 19 states. Hillsdale schools are quasi-public, tuition-free charter schools—part of the broad effort to use school choice to provide conservative alternatives to local public schools. 

This effort to remake education in a conservative mold operates in parallel with the rapid growth of a parents’ rights movement. Parents’ rights activists press to: ban books that reference gender or sexuality; banish teaching of Critical Race Theory (which is not actually being taught, but is used as political shorthand to stir opposition to any diversity or anti-racist programming ); abolish diversity and equity initiatives; and sanitize education by removing reference to LGBTQ issues and ongoing racism in order to restore a 1950s version of history. According to the Woodrow Wilson report mentioned above, 81% of these parents can’t pass a basic citizenship test, yet they believe that they should have control over the curriculum. 

This multifaceted conservative campaign has further splintered the notion of a common foundation on which to build an engaged citizenry. While the number of Hillsdale and similar schools is still relatively small, the aggressive right-wing effort has empowered activists to challenge the accurate teaching of history, particularly the history of systemic racism, in many thousands of schools across America.

There are currently only seven Hillsdale schools in all of Colorado, but there are ambitious expansion plans. This article reports how this expansion game is playing out in Weld County. 

Current Colorado schools are:

  • Ascent Classical Academy of Douglas County (Lone Tree, Colorado)
  • Ascent Classical Academy of Northern Colorado (Fort Collins, Colorado)
  • Golden View Classical Academy (Golden, Colorado)
  • American Legacy Academy – Severance (Severance, Colorado)
  • American Legacy Academy – Windsor (Windsor, Colorado)
  • Ascent Classical Academy of Durango (Durango, Colorado)
  • Liberty Tree Academy (Falcon, Colorado)

The website of Ascent Academy makes the distinction clear: 

In so many of our educational institutions today, instead of studying Euclid, Locke, Shakespeare, Churchill, Lewis, or Reagan, we educate our students about microaggressions, cultural appropriation, victimhood, gender identification, safe spaces, and the like.

For those who continue to live on the margins of American society, high-minded language about virtue and nobility provides little hope that conservative civics education will address the need for equity in a diverse society.  

By understanding the language used in these competing curricula, we can then understand how civics education can prepare, or indoctrinate, children. The difference matters.

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Public Education Under Siege

The ideological tension has coincided with educational policies that emphasize mathematics and English over all else.  Beginning with a 1983 report titled, A Nation at Risk, education has been dominated by testing and accountability. A Nation at Risk was commissioned by the Reagan administration and purported to show that student achievement had precipitously declined. The concern was based in part on a remarkable statistical error. It was a big lie, exposed by more honest work in subsequent years, particularly the Sandia Report of 1990. This subsequent work received little fanfare and nothing changed.It has been a 39-year war on public education, teachers and teachers unions. It seems all of America believes that our schools are bad and that education reform is a critical need.This manufactured “concern” has driven decades of ineffective (and profitable) policy.

Worst among policies was the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, which left most children behind as it stirred up a morass of useless standards, time-wasting testing and test prep, and huge profits for educational publishers. This ongoing boondoggle is well documented by eminent educational historian Diane Ravitch and many others. In the predictable frenzy of testing to which children have been subjected, civics, the arts, creativity, imagination, and critical thinking have been neglected. 

A national effort to undermine public education has been underway for decades. Much of this campaign has been funded by wealthy conservative groups, the Walton (Walmart) family prominent among them. The most visible manifestations have been sprawling networks of charter schools and political movements supporting vouchers and school choice. Less visible is the profit motive.

Research pegs the total U.S. K-12 education “market” at $1.3 trillion. There are a great many greedy fingers dipping into that pot of gold. Public funds are supporting largely unaccountable for-profit schools in many communities. This Washington Post article cites some of the most egregious examples. Voucher programs and school choice are also diverting public funds to religious schools, as documented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. These schemes seemed blatantly unconstitutional until the recent Supreme Court ruling in Carson v. Makin, which seems to fill the separation of church and state with cement.

The charter school movement was originally intended to offer freedom for innovation, providing models for broader school improvement. The movement was quickly subsumed within the growing effort to undermine and erode the traditional public system. While there are noteworthy exceptions, charter schools in the aggregate have yet to outperform public schools. Many, especially in vulnerable urban communities of color, have been corrupt and incompetent. This article documents the massive scale of fraud and mismanagement in the urban charter sector.

How Children Learn Matters 

In his essay, A Mathematician’s Lament, Paul Lockhart writes:

A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made—all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer.

Lockhart goes on to eloquently critique the dry, soulless teaching of mathematics by illustrating the absurdity of teaching music without hearing or playing music or teaching art by using “paint by numbers.” Similarly, most civics education—you may remember your own—is a rather dry excursion through America’s founding documents, with exams testing knowledge of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and perhaps a smattering of landmark Supreme Court decisions. The relevance to students’ lives is negligible and thus retention is slight. 

Like music and mathematics, democracy is beautiful, elegant, complex, and deeply meaningful. Just as you can’t be a musician or music lover by memorizing black notes on a white page, you can’t learn to be a productive citizen of a democratic society without active participation. I highly recommended Lockhart’s essay as a primer in the importance of learning through real engagement.

In order to ignite a passion for civics, students should argue Supreme Court cases, participate in heated debates, run for school office, petition city council, and protest whatever side of an issue they embrace in their towns’ public spaces. 

These kinds of experiences can forever change how students will understand and participate in democratic society. 

The Erosion of a Common Understanding 

The decline in civics education is acutely exacerbated by the changed media environment. In years past, most Americans received information from common and trusted sources—primarily a few broadcast television stations and a national or local newspaper. Differences of opinion were at least based on stipulation to the facts. 

This is no longer the case, as the statistics below reveal. This shift away from common sources of credible information has led to both irreconcilable divisions and a troubling loss of faith in our system of governance. Social media is the largest source of information and, as we increasingly know, algorithms skew information toward existing biases. 

These divisions are dangerously partisan. Consider these findings from a New York Times/Siena College poll conducted July 5-7, 2022:

  • 92% of Democrats believe that former president Trump threatened democracy with his post-election actions. 
  • Only 19% of Republicans believe that to be true.
  • 61% of Republicans believe Trump won the 2020 election.
  • 48% of Americans between 18-29 believe voting doesn’t matter.
  • Only 34% of Americans are confident that major newspapers and television stations are accurate and fair.
  • Only 7% get information from a major newspaper; 1% from a local paper.
  • 58% of those polled believe our constitutional democracy no longer works.

According to Pew Research, the United States ranks 32nd of 36 countries in terms of voter participation by those of voting age.

In a frayed and fragile democratic society, a rededication to civics education must be accompanied by education in media literacy. If citizens are unable to distinguish between the truth and partisan fiction, they cannot discharge their democratic responsibilities, no matter their knowledge of the system itself.

Civics Education in Our Region

According to the Education Commission of the States, the state of Colorado expresses laudable standards, although the extent to which they are enforced or realized is unclear. The standards call for courses on the history of governance in Colorado and the United States, including the history and contributions of minorities. 

Colorado Academic Standards include a strand for civics, but the language is vague and generic. The website offers sample standards and benchmarks, including “researching, formulating positions, and engaging in appropriate civic participation to address local, state, or national issues or policies (high school).”

They also assert that “The civics standards are meant to teach students the complexity of the origins, structure, and functions of government; the rights, roles and responsibilities of ethical citizenship; the importance of law; and the skills necessary to participate in all levels of government.”

While the extent to which these standards are realized is unknown, the language provides Colorado citizens with authority to demand a high-quality approach to civics education in their local schools.

I reached out to Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), St. Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD), and a sample of private and charter schools for information on their approach to civics education. 

SVVSD provided the most comprehensive response. District schools participate in events including Doing Democracy Day, Voter Registration Awareness Week, and a districtwide High School Student Senate where the legislative process is discussed with a former Colorado legislator. The students then debate proposed bills. Students may also choose from among a variety of clubs and co-curricular activities, like Model UN, Speech and Debate, and Diplomacy Club.

Curricular components include a required government credit and electives including Advanced Placement Government. The district offers a summer Innovation Academy where elementary students engage in “design-thinking processes” to address global issues. An optional Leadership Academy invites student engagement in the community and intersects with civics education.

BVSD’s lone response was from Peak to Peak Charter School which requires “ … either one semester of standard US government followed by standard economics or a full year if students select AP US government. Students generally take this course option in 10th grade.”

The Watershed School (full disclosure: I serve as a trustee) has a mission that embraces learning through experience.  Students learn basic democratic processes and how their voices matter in shaping policy at local, state, national, and international levels.

An example of civics in the curriculum is an innovative program where students select a controversial political issue that interests them and then do research on multiple perspectives in order to develop an informed opinion. They travel to a more conservative community, interview youth and adults, and then produce a podcast that fairly represents the disparate views on the issue.

Necessary but Insufficient

There are some indications that the importance of civics education is increasingly recognized. Many of the schools in our region declare a commitment to prepare students for thoughtful participation in our democratic republic. But across the nation, public education is under assault, as is the truth itself. 

If we are to believe, as Horace Mann implored us, that public education must be a unifying force that establishes a common foundation from which to exercise self-governance, we are in deep trouble. The kind of education Franklin D. Roosevelt saw as necessary to preserve our democratic republic is in jeopardy. 

If we are this profoundly divided on the truth of our past, it is difficult to imagine unity on the possibilities for our future.

Author

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Steve Nelson is an author and columnist living in Erie, CO. His critically acclaimed book, First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk is available through Amazon. He blogs at: https://stevenelson.substack.com/

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