Author: Andrew Taramykin (Progressive Democrat)
“The line used to be out the door.”
Those were the wistful words of the Boys State Chairman for American Legion Post 286 when I interviewed to be selected for the prestigious–albeit less well-known than in yesteryear–youth government program. There were just twelve young men there from three area high schools. Post 286 serves most of the city of Orlando, with more than a dozen schools in its territory, but most guidance counselors simply didn’t respond to the Legion’s offer, or couldn’t get any students interested. Months later, when I attended the program in Tallahassee, Florida, that same sentiment lingered. We were the 76th class of a proud organization committed to upholding and promoting American civic principles to the next generation, but it seemed like the world didn’t admire us the way they used to.
Such is the story of U.S. civic education in the 21st century. The National Council for the Social Studies defines civics as “both the study of government and how people participate in governing society, as well as the students’ preparation for active citizenship.” Once the cornerstone of American education, civics has a uniquely interdisciplinary nature that has been largely stripped from K-12 curricula, combining the study of “government, U.S. and world history, geography, law, economics, and American culture,” including arts, literature, and media.
The average American high school student took three civics courses in the mid-20th century, but now takes just one single-semester course on the subject, according to Michael Rebell’s Flunking Democracy. That course, typically called U.S. or American Government, covers little more than the fundamental structure and mechanisms of federalism and each of the three branches of government. The rapid decline in civics is due in large part to the significant reform of U.S. education ushered in by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). A bipartisan law intended to strengthen the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the NCLB attempted to improve schools through an emphasis on standardized testing which would allow the federal government to hold states, districts, and individual schools accountable for failing to meet national criteria. NCLB was particularly focused on math and English benchmarks. This not only mechanicalized curriculum in these subjects, but gave schools little incentive to invest in other areas.
While math and English curriculum may be easier to assess with an annual exam, civics is vital to achieving the paramount goal of education: teaching young people how to be informed, engaged members of their community and society. Rebell even argues that states are constitutionally obliged to provide civic education since most state constitutions justify the right to public education as vital to producing good citizens. Likewise, the Education Commission of the States (ECS) points out that civics connects learning to public and community issues in a way that is unique in elementary and secondary education. The lack of civic education has had dire implications for Millennials and Generation Z, who went through school after NCLB reset the curriculum. A 2016 study by political scientists Yascha Mounk of Harvard University and Roberto Stefan Foa of the University of Melbourne found that just 30% of U.S. millennials believe it is “essential” to live in a democracy. Perhaps even more frightening, their report cites a 2011 survey where 24% of millennials responded that democracy is a “bad” or “very bad” way of running a country.
In 2015, another bipartisan education law replaced NCLB, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA adds flexibility to the standards established by NCLB, with an added emphasis on career and college readiness, which the ECS promotes as beneficial to the goal of restoring civic education. Some states, including Florida, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Arizona, have attempted to strengthen their civic education curriculum. However, adjustments have been subtle, and the aforementioned states still lag well behind pre-NCLB America in civics. Nevertheless, the fact that state and federal leaders recognize the need to restore civic education proves that progress is within reach.
CivXNow, a cross-partisan coalition of organizations promoting civic education, considers investment to be the vital first step in restoring American civic education. According to the coalition, state and federal governments currently spend $1 billion annually on STEM subjects, but just $4 million annually on civics. That’s only $1 invested in civics for every $250 invested in STEM. An increase in funding would mean more training and resources for teachers, more opportunity to advance concrete policies, and a greater ability to tailor curriculum to unique circumstances across the country.
Once funding for civic education is secured, there’ll come the issue of what to do with it. Guardian of Democracy, a 2011 report produced by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools and others, prescribed six practices to improve the quality of civic education.
The first is classroom instruction, the bread and butter of any educational initiative. Like other subjects, social studies have become woefully mechanical. Reduced instruction time has narrowed the scope of study, making learning more about the retention of fact rather than the understanding and analysis of themes. These facts, however, are useless without the benefit of real-world application. Furthermore, the component subjects of civic education–law, history, geography, government, and culture–are cheapened when studied in isolation. Each subject should be taught as an ingredient in a recipe, not its own meal.
Tied into classroom instruction is the second practice, discussion of current events and issues. A vital goal of civic education is enabling students to bridge social, economic, and political gaps to promote a democratic approach to problem-solving. Pew Research reported in 2018 that Americans are feeling increasingly uncomfortable discussing politics with people with whom they disagree, a symptom of the breakdown of national dialogue that is vital to liberal democracy. It seems likely that this breakdown has been fostered by social media algorithms prone to producing echo chambers that stimulate user engagement. Many young people rely chiefly on the internet and social media to be exposed to the outside world; therefore, the classroom can and should be an important forum for escaping echo chambers, processing ideas, and discussing conflicting opinions.
The third and fourth practices, service-learning and extracurriculars, provide students opportunities to apply their civic knowledge while gaining valuable skills and enjoying the social benefits of school involvement. Programs such as speech & debate, mock trial, and Model United Nations allow students to study, debate, and engage with civic issues at the local, national, and global levels, while volunteer groups or political clubs can allow kids to directly participate in public life. However, unlike athletics or fine arts, which are often provided by schools, civic extracurriculars are usually independent clubs that depend on student and unpaid-volunteer leaders. With proper investment from local and national governments, schools should finance and support their civic extracurricular teams like they would football or band.
Lastly, the fifth and sixth practices, school governments and democratic simulations are perhaps the most effective methods of immersing young people in American civic culture. Student government associations can teach not only about the electoral process, but about how the branches of government interact with each other and their constituents, in situations that are more relevant, relatable, and important to young people. Other simulations of democracy, most notably American Legion Boys State and American Legion Auxiliary Girls State, which I discussed earlier, can offer talented, civic-minded youth opportunities to be emerged in state government and discover a broad network of peers and alumni.
Restoring civic education will not only produce more informed citizens, but will enrich public life by reviving discourse, promoting republican values, and repairing damaged trust in American institutions and traditions. Emphasizing American civic values in social studies curriculum would hardly encourage the emergence of a new conservative nationalist generation either. Quite contrarily, a thorough, objective study of American social and political development (at the state and national levels) in schools would extinguish one of right-wing populism’s most toxic rhetorical appeals: a revisionist, highly romanticized version of the national history that never really existed. The political right, led by Ronald Reagan’s call to “Make America Great Again”, has attempted to reclaim historical narrative from academia, which they perceive as inherently liberal. Their reclamation has been enabled by what UC Berkeley historian Nils Gilman describes as “the retreat of public institutions from engaging in moral suasion in general and American civic life.”
Meanwhile, liberal academic historians have begun focusing their study not only on the elder statesmen and titans of industry, but on marginalized groups, such as the working-class, people of color, and women. This new way of studying the past is long overdue, and vital to creating a historical narrative that includes all people, not just the elite. However, it has also led to newfound pessimism among its students, who see history as a story of perpetual oppression.
These conflicting historical narratives lead to the left and right believing in two totally different stories, and even two different countries altogether; young people on the left are pessimistic, and see a nation that is inherently bad, while young people on the right believe in a Shining City on a Hill that never really existed. Therefore, restoring thorough, objective civic education is paramount to bridging the partisan divide not only by encouraging dialogue and public engagement, but by clarifying and unifying America’s historical narrative and purpose.
The positive effects of restoring civic education will not be felt until a generation later, but it is absolutely an investment worth making in our children and our country. Molding young people into informed, analytical, cooperative problem-solvers is the very purpose of education. It will not solve all our problems, and it will not end the partisanship that’s as old as America itself. However, investing in education’s purpose by investing in civics will create a generation of leaders who are ready and willing to safeguard our democracy.
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