Finally, people are seeing the connections. (And this time, I’m not talking about the extent to which America’s problems are grounded in suspicion and hatred of “the Other”–although recognition of that phenomenon has also grown.) I’m talking about civic literacy.

A recent report from the Washington Post began

It has been a bad 12 months for the practice of civics in America.
The U.S. Capitol attacked by thugs. An alleged plot to kidnap a state governor. Bogus claims of widespread election fraud. Violent protests in the streets. Death threats against public health officials. And a never-ending barrage of anger and misinformation on social media directed at, and by, politicians, leaders, pundits and an increasingly bitter and frustrated populace.

As the battles have raged, trust in institutions — government, media, the law — has plummeted.

So how did we get here? And how do we get out?

The article quotes researchers who draw a direct line from our current “civics crises” to America’s long-standing failure to teach civics. Schools do–and have done–a poor job of teaching American government, history and civic responsibility. Priority has been given to development of marketable skills and STEM education. (You can tell which subjects legislators and school systems consider important by looking at which ones are subject to  the high-stakes testing that is now widespread. Most systems do not test for civics.)

Now, a diverse collection of academics, historians, teachers, school administrators and state education leaders is proposing an overhaul of the way civics and history are taught to American K-12 students. And they’re calling for a massive investment of funds, teacher training and curriculum development to help make that happen.

The Educating for American Democracy (EAD) initiative will release a 36-page report and an accompanying 39-page road map Tuesday, laying out extensive guidance for improving and reimagining the teaching of social studies, history and civics and then implementing that over the next decade.

If I wasn’t a really old broad, I’d do a cartwheel!

The “road map” attributes the extensive distrust of America’s democratic institutions to the public’s “dangerously low” civic knowledge. When it comes to understanding how America’s government is supposed to function, large majorities are functionally illiterate. The report doesn’t pull punches–it finds that neglect of civic education is a major cause of our civic and political dysfunction.

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been singing this song for the past ten years. The Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI–which I founded–had documented both the inadequacy of American civic education and the deleterious effects of civic ignorance. (If you want to beat your head against that wall, use the blog’s search function, type in “civic literacy,” and prepare to be inundated with posts and academic papers.

it isn’t simply a matter of devoting more time to civics–it’s also a question of teaching the subject matter effectively.

The report calls for an inquiry-based approach that would focus less on memorizing dates of wars and names of presidents and more on exploring in depth the questions and developments, good and bad, that have created the America we live in today and plan to live in well beyond the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026. What students need, the report argues, is not a laundry list of facts, but a process that produces a better understanding of how the country’s history shaped its present.

As one teacher was quoted, teaching civics has too often been like preparing students to do well in a game of Trivial Pursuit“– a list of items that you could recite on a multiple-choice test. What students need, however, is a much better understanding of how systems work and how individuals can participate in the processes of electing, debating, governing and consensus-reaching.

The new focus on educating students to become more knowledgeable citizens calls for an investment in teacher training, curriculum development and an approach that would emphasize teaching of history and civics to the same degree as STEM and English language arts courses.

It’s past time.


  1. You know things have hit rock bottom when the first step in restoring Civic Literacy is having to teach the teachers how to teach the subject. This then begs the question, “How do we teach the parents?”

  2. Thank you, Professor, for so many things, not the least of which is common sense.

  3. Several years ago, the Congress used to fund the “We the People” civics education program in American grade schools and high schools. Their teacher training was excellent with workshops in Indiana and nationwide. I was trained at a multi-day workshop taught by college professors . Textbooks for this course at three different levels used to be provided free to public and private schools all over the country. Teams of students could enter state and national competitions of simulated Congressional hearings. The curriculum focused on the concepts integral to our system of government, not memorizing facts. The fifth grade level focused on things like why you can have freedom of speech but not when it conflicts with public safety, such as falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, why we fund our government to do things for the public good, like building sidewalks and highways, and how our three branches of government establish a check and balance system for our government. I was so sorry when government funding for this very effective civics education curriculum was withdrawn. It was available to schools all around the country in the not too distant past.

  4. Perhaps this focus should be extended to higher education. Given that so many physicians, engineers, businessmen and women, and other members of “professional” fields supported Trump’s authoritarianism, it might be appropriate to require coursework in Political Science and the History of Western Civilization during the first two years of college. My former pediatrist could not define socialism, and he’s now a Republican Congressman.

  5. Sorry that I don’t join your enthusiasm on Bezo’s “solution” to the distrust in America’s undemocratic institutions. It’s fascinating but not surprising that his newspaper would find fault with the oppressed. Isn’t that the definition of gaslighting?

    Just like in his warehouses, the reason the underpaid and overworked workers don’t trust the company must be their own misunderstanding of how great they have it at Amazon. “You don’t need unions because our company is the greatest.”

    Meanwhile, Jeff’s solution is to hire CIA spooks and more facial recognition surveillance in his warehouses to snuff out any signs of organizing during work hours. “We have to weed out the trouble-makers.”

    Let me ask, “What’s the point of teaching civic literacy if there are no changes to the oligarchic institutions that are corrupted to the core?”

    If our politicians can’t even deliver a measly $15 minimum wage to workers across the country, what good is civic literacy? If pegged to CEO pay, dividend payouts, and stock prices, the minimum wage should be around $25-30.00 an hour. Workers are begging for $15.00 but only get $7.25 an hour.


    Bezos probably plans to donate a few million to the cause to make him a hero since his popularity has plummeted due to the handling of his organizing workers.

    Beware of oligarchs bearing gifts. 😉

  6. As a high school senior in Minot, ND I was required to take a semester of civics and a semester of economics. That was on top of a year of American History and a year of World History. Even though I spent most of my working life as an IT guy, I consider those classes among the most memorable of my academic career. When I he are of Tommy Tuberville’s civic ignorance, I thought “What would Mr. Maisel think about a senator who couldn’t pass his class?” Unfortunately, almost all of the top 50% of my class left ND for places that have better economies and a more progressive outlook. Leaning ND with its current disaster of a political climate

  7. I, too, have been on the bandwagon for the return of well-taught civics in our schools for a lot of years. And, our kids should also be learning how to think critically. It will be interesting to watch the reactionary Neanderthals come swarming out to resist a movement to do this. They’ll probably label it ‘socialism’ or something else they deplore but don’t understand. We can only hope it takes hold and our future teachers and voting age citizens will have the benefit of understanding and embracing civic responsibility like so many of the golden oldies among us do. Being one of those folks myself, I do remember being taught both civics and critical thinking and I am grateful.

    Richard Dreyfuss has also been beating this drum for a very long time. Here’s a bit of info from his website: The Dreyfuss Initiative is a non-profit corporation formed to revive, elevate and enhance the teaching of civics in public schools grades k-12 in the USA. If you’re interested, here’s the link:

  8. While I seriously doubt that our educational system will reach as far as the mire and muck of the “Federal Register” I happily look forward to the day when our children know the difference between the House and the Senate and their respective length of terms. I ask only that we don’t use the punitive system we have used for STEM education to promote civic literacy. The testing that we have done in schools for the past few decades was, IMHO, simply the easiest way to close inner city schools for their lack of improvement in the scores of children who couldn’t afford books, much less computers, unlike their suburban counterparts.

  9. Another issue with effective teaching of civics is that school systems often hire civic teachers as coaches for major sports, then ask if they can teach. I still have a bone to pick with the administration of my old high school on that subject.

  10. I would agree with Todd’s post @ 8:06 am. You can teach all the courses you want and then at some point the realization will happen, they will se the light. The Oligarchy – the 1% control the elected officials and the laws are designed to protect the Oligarchy.

    From Common Dreams Web Site:

    Sen. Bernie Sanders’ last-ditch effort to reattach a $15 minimum wage provision to the Senate coronavirus relief package failed Friday morning after 8 members of the Democratic caucus joined all 50 Republicans in voting down the Vermont senator’s amendment.

    Those who voted against advancing Sanders’ amendment were Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Angus King (I-Maine.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.).

    Pennsylvania Lt. Governor John Fetterman, a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, said in a statement Friday that “every single senator who voted against a $15 minimum wage today should be forced to live on $7.25 an hour so that they can demonstrate to all of us how it’s possible.”

    “While these senators sit comfortably in Washington making $174,000 a year, millions of Americans are struggling every day to get by, and they cannot wait any longer,” Fetterman added. “They need a living wage now. All work has dignity, and all paychecks must too. If the Senate were to pass a $15 minimum wage, 24 million people would see their wages rise. Instead, 58 deeply out of touch senators decided to turn their backs on working people.”

    As usual all the Republicans voted against the minimum wage, all that talk about “moderate Republicans” is just that Talk.

  11. Having been involved with Scouts BSA (they are no longer just for boys) for many years, my favorite merit badges to teach are Citizenship in the Community, Citizenship in the Nation, and Citizenship in the World. BSA thinks this is important. All three merit badges are required for the Eagle Scout rank.

    While they do hit on the basics: who is the mayor?, How is the the city, state, national government organized?, they go on to make a kid think about problems at the various levels they would like to see fixed or changed, and make them reach out. It lets the kid’s know these things are real and they can have an effect on where they live. It is not a semester of classroom time, but it is a real life one on one experience. You have to give people the tools to know how to make a difference and that is called civic education.

    After all, the 7th point of the Scout Law is:
    Scouts follow the rules of their family, school, and troop. They obey the laws of their community and country. If they think these rules and laws are unfair, they try to have them changed in an orderly manner rather than disobey them.

    PS Thanks for pointing me to the Potholes, Parks, and Politicians. I wish I had it 30 years ago.

  12. “You can teach all the courses you want and then at some point the realization will happen, they will see the light”.
    We can hope that the light they see is the one that shines on how the lack of civic literacy led to the oligarchy taking over so much of the government, and that the remedy for this basic injustice is for all citizens to use their civic knowledge to organize and engage. And VOTE.

  13. I was under the impression that the original reason for educating children was to make good citizens, which are necessary for democracy. If we don’t teach them to be good citizens, this whole experiment will be for naught.

  14. As long as school curricula are primarily controlled at the state level and a significant majority of states are in GOP control…fugetaboutit…

  15. I grew up in Kearney, Nebraska and in 9th grade we had a one-year class called “Citizenship”. Since Nebraska is the only state with a Unicameral, the class included a field trip to the state capital. One of the best classes I ever took. I minored in history in college. My favorite class was on the Progressive Era–grad students read a book a week, under grads one book every two weeks, and class time was devoted to talking about what we’d read. I still read history “for fun” and to learn new things. We need to stop teaching wars, dates and dead presidents and teach about why our country is the way it is.

  16. I feel your pain fellow bloggers and add to it my own about science literacy. All of it needs to be considered though in the context of these times for us and the near future times for young people just starting out.

    Here’s the context: we are in a shock wave of the human explosion of knowledge that has completely eliminated generalists and can be accessed only by a collaboration of specialists. The days of the individual accomplishing anything alone are behind us and many of us are not adroit at collaboration so we find life stressful and frustrating.

    At 16 I was a sort of amateur mechanic and found automobiles to be an easily understandable pile of parts to diagnose and tinker with and replace when they no longer did their job. Ask any current auto mechanic their job today and they will say if the problem is any more than an oil change or tire rotation the first thing they do is to plug in a computer and do what it tells them to do which usually involves unplugging and unscrewing a box the contents of which are incomprehensible to them and going to the parts counter to get a replacement box and hoping that all of the plugs plug with no leftovers and all of the screws screw back.

    Life is fundamentally different than it was at the other end of our lives. Fundamentally different. Nothing works anymore as it used to and there is no putting that toothpaste back in the tube or even slowing the flow of it. We must adapt to reality and we include all of us.

    It’s driving us crazy.

  17. I couldn’t figure out how Jeff Bezos’ name came up. I guess it’s b/c it’s a Washington Post article and Bezos owns the Washington Post. I’m pretty sure Bezos doesn’t sign off on the articles that are published in the WP.

    Other than that, I agree with Todd’s comments regarding Jeff Bezos. I wish the left would stop hailing him as some sort of hero. When he raised minimum pay at his Amazon facilities to $15 an hour, Sen. Bernie Sanders praised the move. But what most on the left missed is at the same time Amazon workers at the bottom were given $2 more an hour to get to $15 an hour, Amazon eliminated the very lucrative attendance and performance bonuses Amazon employees were receiving. So Amazon workers ended up with far less money in their pockets after the increase to $15 an hour. Bezos got favorable publicity for paying its employees more, when Amazon was actually paying employees less. Not a big union fan, but Amazon desperately needs a union. While the pay/benefits at Amazon facilities is in line or better than other warehouses, the working conditions are dreadful.

    As far as the minimum wage increase, the characterization of all Republicans and several Democrats as being against it is not at all accurate. They are against raising it to $15 an hour. The minimum wage was last increased in 2009. It would be about $10.85 if it was indexed to inflation. Sen. Romney indicated he would support increasing the federal minimum wage to $11 and then indexing it to inflation. That would get a lot of bipartisan support. But, no, progressives insist it must be immediately raised to $15 an hour or nothing. Of course, as the nonpartisan OMB has concluded raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour will cost jobs and cause employers to cut back hours.

    PA Lt. Governor Fetterman says “every single senator who voted against a $15 minimum wage today should be forced to live on $7.25 an hour so that they can demonstrate to all of us how it’s possible.” (His statement completely ignores the vast land between $7.25 and $15 an hour.) To Lt. Gov. Fetterman I would ask him to find me the workers who are paid only $7.25 an hour, much less completely supporting themselves on that wage. How much do you think the high school kids restocking the shelves at the grocery store is paid? The person ringing up those groceries? The kid running the cash register at the Dollar Store? The person working weekends at a warehouse? I guarantee you none of them is earning anywhere close to $7.25 an hour. They are getting at least $10 an hour and much more likely a few dollars higher. And they’re probably getting regular increases every three months which is the norm.

    The fact is demand for unskilled labor has increased pay far beyond the $7.25 an hour minimum wage. If someone is only paying you $10 an hour, you most certainly, as an unskilled worker, can find another job that pays $12 an hour. So the employer paying $10 is forced to increase its employees’ pay if they want to keep them. Competition for labor has driven up wages for lower end employees, not some artificial minimum wage.

    Sorry to stray from the point of Sheila’s column. Lack of civics education is a problem. I just don’t think though it’s THE problem. Many of the Trump supporters who supported the overthrow of our democratic system of government are very well educated. It’s not that they don’t have the education to know better, it’s just that they’re part of a personality cult and will support anything Dear Leader wants.

  18. If you were to do a Google search on “South Carolina Critical Thinking” the responses would lead you to believe that serious efforts are made by serious people in this state to instill the mental discipline we all agree works best. However, nothing in our educational ranking or our work results or our political understanding (this is, after all, the home of Lindsey Graham)would support that conclusion. Some research needs to be done to look into how we achieve so little with so much effort in order to to avoid that outcome elsewhere. When we turned our backs on Common Core, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that resistance was based on opposition to critical thinking.

  19. The key to civic engagement is not the mere presence of it in the high school curriculum; it is the effective teaching of it, and some of the problem today in our lack of civic understanding can be traced to educational administrators who hand off teaching of it to coaches. That tells us a lot about administrators and how they rate civics on the importance scale, so if we are to have reform perhaps we should reform from within.

    The teaching of civics should not be relegated to schools alone. Politicians, parents and others should also teach civics by word and example. Knowing that Lincoln was born in Hodgensville, Kentucky, in 1809, and died in 1865, is not nearly so important as becoming acquainted with the background for his Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, Teddy’s reason for forming the Bull Moose Party etc. It seems we want certainty, as in, two and two are always four, an easy concept to teach; but are reluctant to teach the impact of Dred Scott or Brown or other malleable concepts. We have to live in both worlds.

  20. The benefit, long-term, of improved civic literacy is that it would raise the likelihood of even Hoosiers electing representatives, state and federal, who would increasingly resist the oligarchs and heal the republic. There! I stated it as mildly and cautiously as possible, but that is the hope.

  21. Emkate – I agree. While one required semester of Civics is better than none, the K-12 curriculum is more appropriate – especially now. Perhaps it would begin with merely forming opinions (and calling them opinions, not truths); how to represent those opinions effectively; actively listening to another’s opinions, noticing what feelings that prompts – and managing those feelings; engaging in a productive exchange of opinions; moving toward consensus of opinions through negotiation; reaching consensus and moving into creating/revising law, etc. Of course, there would be much more but surely these skills taught early (age appropriately) and consistently would be steps out of ignorance and towards civility.

    There is a LOT involved with being an engaged citizen – much less an elected representative of people. Hoping that people might get that knowledge in college leaves out most of the constituent population and is too risky to leave up to chance.

    “The U.S. Capitol attacked by thugs. An alleged plot to kidnap a state governor. Bogus claims of widespread election fraud. Violent protests in the streets. Death threats against public health officials. And a never-ending barrage of anger and misinformation on social media directed at, and by, politicians, leaders, pundits and an increasingly bitter and frustrated populace.”

    America’s reputation for being a shining example of democracy has taken an appropriate hit, but the takeaway message should be clear. We can’t assume that the collective “we” understands enough about democratic principles to even appreciate them, much less to properly engage in them. Early and consistent civic education is the way out of this ignorance- and on to restoring America’s example of what a healthy democracy should be.

  22. The need for civics instruction grows greater all the time as government becomes more complicated and, without enough local newspaper journalists to follow local and state government, most government is becoming more obscure and remote.

    The “We the People” program was excellent and needs to be funded again and expanded. Given so little time afforded it, civics instruction has mostly concentrated on the federal government and to a lesser extent on state government with not enough attention on either. Unfortunately even less instruction is focused on municipal, school, county, and township government which affect citizens so directly every day.

    Where and how does one start to gain action on trash collection, pothole repair, poor relief, zoning, building and remodeling permits, police and fire services, school budgets – schedules – curricula – discipline – and class-sizes, snow plowing, road construction, a faulty traffic signal, landlord-tenant issues, a dangerous neighbor, or any number of other issues? How does someone impact the government’s decisions on those issues? And while those are administrative issues, what do we need to know about how the courts operate to seek legal redress, serve on juries, and make informed judgments about election of judges?

    The solution is not to add standardized testing of civics. All schools lose instructional time to excessive standardized testing. Most lose 2-4 weeks and too many lose 6 weeks or more of instructional time to ‘defensive’ standardized testing to protect themselves from the erroneous grades assigned to schools based on the state’s standardized test. We’d have a lot more time for instruction if we eliminated grading of schools based on standardized tests and make way for civics instruction.

  23. Vindication!
    I do appreciate that one of the last quotes you cite is about the need to teach, and not teach to a test.

    I just wonder if this change is possible given the causes of the problem, being first, that politicians like Reagan and Clinton denigrated government and its function and second, more importantly, the cancerous believe that money is the only thing. Civics won’t increase your salary, so it needn’t be taught, like music, art, foreign languages, etc.

    We can only hope that people finally listen to Sheila and put an emphasis back on civics education.

  24. Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, 1980, woke me up. Thanks to Dr. Zinn, I question everything. A good teacher, a truth-teller, is a gift beyond price. I realized that I had been taught a fairy tale in public school.

  25. Sheila, you and I have been singing the same song….for years! I can still remember my civics class…drawing diagrams of the journey laws take in Congress, etc. We MUST get back to an educated electorate! Anything else leads to disasters like Jan. 6th, where mobs have no idea of legalities, processes, etc.

    By the way–thanks for your thoughts!

  26. Unless and until there is a federal take-over of public K-12 education, what is taught will continue to be only that which passes muster of state and local school boards. That is to say, unfortunately, that the “US History” taught in Oregon or California will continue to be a far cry from that taught in Mississippi or Alabama. Some progress here can be made by holding federal K-12 funds hostage from the states, but this can go only so far until students in need of special services or lunch will be harmed. I was at the National Academy of Science when then President George H.W. Bush gave his speech calling for a national test bases on a standard curriculum. Many in the room wondered just who would be writing such curricula. This is still a validand important question.

  27. Yes, and I can’t put enough emphasis in that affirmation. The last four years have done much to increase my knowledge of civics. Too bad it had to be done in the crush of crisis.
    As a retired English teacher I rejoiced when writing across the curriculum was introduced. How well it has been implemented I have no idea. A teacher is getting little feedback on students’ comprehension when using multiple choice tests. Of course, they are easy to grade, but they don’t involve analysis and critical thinking. In civics, the teacher might both test and encourage by not weighting the mechanics of writing too heavily.
    We desperately need critical readers and thinkers. Please keep driving this forward Sheila.

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