by Peter L. Levine
My colleagues and I have worked on civic education for several decades, but I’ve never seen such an upsurge of interest as we’ve observed during the past year. Demands for more and better civics are not only coming from critics of the Trump administration who are concerned about a perceived erosion of constitutional principles. There’s also alarm across the political spectrum about polarization: Americans believe different facts, hold different opinions, and dislike their fellow citizens who disagree with them. “Fake news” is also a widely-shared concern, even though we debate what is “fake.”
And beneath these trends is a slow but profound decline in our everyday civic engagement at the community level (distinct from politics and government). For instance, in a 2017 poll, only 28 percent of Americans said they belonged to even one organization that had accountable and inclusive leaders. These concerns are shared by many Americans who voted for Donald Trump, as well as by many who opposed him or who didn’t vote at all.
Students can and must be educated to participate in politics and community life. That means that we must certainly give more attention to civic education in our k-12 schools. But sometimes the conversation about k-12 civics gets off on the wrong foot. I constantly hear people ask, “Why don’t kids study civics anymore?” Or “Why isn’t anyone working on that problem?”
Sometimes these complaints are reinforced with evidence of adults’ lack of basic knowledge. For instance, after the national political conventions in 2016, just 37 percent of Americans could name the Republican candidate for vice president and just 22 percent could name the Democratic candidate.
This is not the right place to start because we already teach civics in schools. Almost all students are required to study the US system of government in history and other social studies courses. Almost all face tests on this material. Every state has lengthy requirements for learning basic civic information. And thousands of dedicated social studies teachers do an excellent job with this material. We must not erase their contributions or ignore our students’ learning by posing the issue as “Why don’t kids study civics anymore?”
Yet much more needs to be done. Civic education has been a backwater at a time when basic literacy, science, and math have received relentless attention. The social and political world has changed dramatically–for example, newspapers have shrunk and social media has arrived–yet very little money has been spent in revising social studies resources and methods for our new era. Teachers report a lack of support for educating future citizens.
We also tend to focus attention in somewhat the wrong places. For example, most students learn the mechanics of the political system in order to demonstrate knowledge on a test, but few develop habits of following the news out of interest and commitment. If a 50-year-old doesn’t know who was nominated for Vice President, it isn’t because we failed to teach social studies. It’s because the adult never became interested enough to keep up. Motivation is crucial in civics.
Finally, we don’t devote as much attention as we need to addressing the real weaknesses of American civil society: polarization, shrinking voluntary associations, and a fragmented news environment.
Connecticut has taken some positive steps lately. In February 2015, the state adopted new frameworks for Elementary and Secondary Social Studies. I think they are well done. They move beyond random-seeming information toward a coherent “Inquiry Arc” that should help to prepare citizens.
Secretary of State Denise Merrill and Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzell are both advocates for civics. In 2017, they launched the “Red, White and Blue Schools” initiative that recognizes Connecticut schools for good civic education. This year¹s theme is local community engagement.
I’m proud to serve on the board of Everyday Democracy, which has helped start the Connecticut Civic Ambassadors Program. Citizens are asked to become “Ambassadors” who will engage with their local community to encourage civics education and engagement.
Another nonprofit based in Connecticut is the Civic Life Project, which “brings civics to life by empowering students to produce and screen short documentary films on community issues they care about.”
Finally, Kid Governor started in Connecticut in 2015 and has since spread to Oregon. It’s an absorbing and deeply educational program for 5th graders that culminates in a mock election.
These are the kinds of steps we need. More must be done in the face of a deeply caustic media and political environment. Strengthening civics isn’t easy, considering all the other challenges that confront our schools. But it is good to see civics receiving new attention and creativity, and I’m optimistic that the rising alarm about our politics will lead to even more improvements in Connecticut and nationwide.
Peter Levine is Associate Dean of the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. For additional background, please see “The Republic is (Still) at Risk—and Civics is Part of the Solution,” a recent paper by Peter Levine and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, released at a summit on civic education keynoted by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.