Addressing The Civics Deficit

I spent a considerable part of my academic career focusing on what I described as the civic deficit. Soon after joining the faculty–and especially when I taught undergraduate classes–I came face to face with students who had obviously gone through both elementary and high school classes without learning even the most basic outlines of American history or government.

An exchange with an undergraduate first acquainted me with the extent of that civic deficit.

I taught my classes through a constitutional lens. We studied the Bill of Rights and wrestled with questions about how those rights should be understood and applied today. I often introduced discussion of the First Amendment’s Free Speech provisions by asking students questions like “What did James Madison think about porn on the Internet?”

Obviously, the response I wanted was something along the lines of “James Madison never imagined a communication mechanism like the Internet”–which would then lead to a (hopefully nuanced) discussion of how today’s courts should apply the values protected by that Amendment to a world the founders could never have imagined. So I was taken aback when a young woman–a junior in college–responded to that question with a puzzled question of her own: “Who’s James Madison?”

I went home, had a very stiff drink–and for the ensuing 18 or so years, focused a major part of my research agenda and advocacy on civic education.

I relate this story because I am finally beginning to see evidence that others share my concern–and my firm belief in the importance of civic knowledge.  The New York Times recently reported that businesses in the U.S. and Europe have recognized the existence and significance of the deficit, and are engaging in efforts to fill the void left by inadequate schooling.

The article began by describing a German worker’s experience with online conspiracy attacks, and the subsequent eight-week program that helped her deal with the misinformation. The program was offered by her employer, described as a “multinational recruitment firm with 3,500 employees in Germany.” The company said the project was part of its own aim to “strengthen democratic values and make their employees more resilient.”

Across Germany, several hundred companies have taken part in such workshops, and similar classes are being held in other Western countries, including the United States. Businesses are finding they need to bolster their employees in the face of increasingly vitriolic political debate. Seminars on civics and democratic principles — such as the importance of voting or recognizing the dangers of disinformation, conspiracy theories and hate speech — have become a way to ensure healthier relationships at the workplace, and in society at large. In addition, reports show that economic growth is higher in stable democracies, and liberal border policies allow companies to attract skilled immigrants.

The instruction has benefits for employee performance; according to representatives of the companies. They say that giving employees basic knowledge of democratic principles and factual underpinnings helps them “recognize and respond to hate speech and misinformation” and “has made employees more self-assured in doing their jobs.”

Groups like the Business Council for Democracy and Weltoffenes Sachsen in Germany and Civic Alliance or the Leadership Now Project in the United States organize workshops like the one Ms. Krüger took part in, provide research and webinars, and support civic education and get-out-the-vote efforts — all of it nonpartisan. Most are nonprofit organizations, backed by independent foundations or a group of businesses that rely on their political independence as a selling point…

A key principle of the workshops was that they be voluntary for employees, said Nina Gbur, the organization’s project manager. They also have to be ideologically neutral, and not target any group or members of a given political party.

What is encouraging is growing recognition that the health of business depends upon the health of democracy.

“Democracy is the basis of our entrepreneurial activity,” said Judith Borowski, managing director of Nomos, which offers its employees civics workshops. “And if we no longer have democracy, then the basis for our entrepreneurial activities will also be very curtailed.”

Authoritarianism is facilitated by ignorance–the ability of political extremists to twist facts and misrepresent history in order to play on citizens’ fears and prejudices.

In Germany, media literacy has been a critical issue, while programs in the United States are frequently focused on teaching employees about how the government works and voting rights. But their basic premise is to empower employees to understand how their actions, both in and out of the workplace, affect the political climate and, ultimately, their own jobs.

These programs are very good news. So is the movement to expand civics education in the schools.

We have a very long way to go…


  1. Amen, sister. I’ve told you my story of teaching a 400-level “law and public policy” class at SPEA in which I used 20 of the citizenship exam questions as a get-acquainted tool. Of the 60 students, only five got more than 10 correct. I told them to read the Constitution before the next class. A groan came up from the students. “We’ll never have the time! It’s Thursday, we can’t possibly read it before class on Tuesday,” they wailed. Tuesday came and half the class had dropped the course. The remaining 30 and I slogged through a “Civics 101” class. There is some good news on the civics education front, due to the hard work of the Indiana Bar Foundation and its able leader, Chuck Dunlap. Next semester, there will be sixth-grade civics requirement, thanks to their hard work. Smart employers like Cummins, Lilly and Salesforce are making civic literacy a priority.

  2. “I relate this story because I am finally beginning to see evidence that others share my concern–and my firm belief in the importance of civic knowledge. The New York Times recently reported that businesses in the U.S. and Europe have recognized the existence and significance of the deficit and are engaging in efforts to fill the void left by inadequate schooling.”

    When my journey down the path of my interests wandered through the woods of ignorance into Sheila’s way, I was taken by how wooded the course was for me, yet she and others here knew it by heart. My visit here every morning to start my day shows her and many others feeling my ignorance trees daily.

    Civic literacy, for example, went from her use often to mine over time. What an obvious improvement concept both myself and my world, that I am in the center of, and the rest of the world is at the periphery of. Especially all of the reasons why the U.S. Constitution changed the world, yet most Americans take it for granted. Like, for instance, the new Speaker of the House, who believes the Bible to be a more critical reference.

    That’s it for me today, other than I agree with Sheila’s point.

  3. I have read about similar programs for elementary school students in Scandinavian countries. Hopeful news, thanks.

  4. Better late than never, and what other on the job training can employers supply to their workers to make them better and more rounded citizens? Basic economics?

  5. While this is good news stand by for the proudly ignorant to whine that they feel a social pressure from peers at work to join the Civics education program and/ or they will complain the program is “indoctrination” because it doesn’t match what these folks already believe and want to continue believing.

  6. Thanks for the wonderful news. Now, if we could only get those programs expanded into the rural areas of our country we might see a drop in radical right extremism. I would love to see Fox and Newsmax might disappear due to lack of viewers.

  7. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about — and often worry over — our courts’ ability to function properly and perform their constitutional functions when civic understanding is so lacking among many jurors, witnesses, litigants as well as the body politic. A judge’s instructions, never mind her decisions, can only take hold when everyone comes at the issues from a general understanding of how this democracy is constructed and what is required to make it work and how essential the rule of law really is. Thanks, Sheila, for all your remarkable and sustained efforts over your very productive life to help overcome these deficits.

  8. People speak of the dearth of knowledge regarding history, government – you name it. However, I can tell you many of these topics are TAUGHT but LEARNED is another thing. How government works is a critical part of education but now there is even less of a guarantee that the topic is being taught. Charter schools (pseudo public school), private schools, religious-based schools, and home schooling add to the confusion of curricula. Traditional public schools can be directed to teach civics, government – whatever – as part of required state curricula. Then there is the additional aspect of lack of engagement. Who knows the name of his/her state rep, state senator, U.S. rep, U.S. senator? Or council member? Who has actually contacted any of them? Who has read a source of information – not just watched- a source of information regarding government? More practically, the effort to learn about what the legislators in Indiana are doing or the federal legislators should be doing – can be overwhelming or disheartening. More philosophically, what core knowledge must we all have to maintain a democracy?

  9. How much of this is “civics postering”? The devil is in the details. I am extremely doubtful that this is in the frame of critical thinking. PLEASE prove me wrong!

    I just watched Ken Burns’ “American Buffalo”. It taught me tons more about US history and Indigenous people than I ever learned in school. I feel sure that it has been banned from showing in Florida….It should be required in every US school, especially the “Christian” ones.

  10. “Who’s James Madison?” is scary! Coming from a college junior makes it scarier still.
    But, I would not be surprised if our new speaker of the house did not know the answer to that question, after all, his bible certainly makes no mention of Madison.

  11. The grand masses don’t know that our democracy experiment is failing miserably.

    Authoritarianism has easily slipped in to fill the vacancy, which isn’t difficult since we are an oligarchy.

    Chambers wanting civic classes are the exception. Their members want worker bees — not thinking bees. If workers start to wake up from this authoritarian disaster, they might start joining unions or demanding unions. 😉

    Let’s accept that we are an oligarchy and take movements to get the wealthy few from our government. If we can acknowledge this and take steps to remedy this problem, I’ll join the team for civics classes.

  12. I agree with Linda Robb that there is a disconnect between what teachers are trying to teach and what students are learning. It is largely due to the fact that students can now be passed through our public schools without showing much, if any, proficiency in learning.

    I looked at one of my grade school report cards several years ago. Printed on the back of it was the description of what a child must do to earn an A, B, C, or D. To earn an A, ALL assignments had to have been turned in complete and on time, with an accuracy of at least 95%. The requirements for just passing were also defined and included turning in most work on time, though at a less stringent accuracy level of 70%.

    The change in what we expect students to do from then to now has been a long, slow slide against which I helplessly fought during my teaching career. Students whose parents can and do set higher requirements for them than those set by our public schools are still learning. Children of parents who don’t or can’t educate them are simply passed along to a future of ignorance and permanent underclass status.

    The reasons for the slide are numerous and some of them were even well intentioned. Nevertheless, the results of that slide were disastrous.

    “What is encouraging is the growing recognition that the health of business depends on the health of democracy.” Amen!

  13. Linda Robb said what I was going to mention. Highlighting Homeschooling is the key here. Some kids never returned to school after the Covid lockdowns so we need to get this out there!

    In 1978, in Indiana, I was able to graduate high school without the required gov’t class because there were no seats left. (I often wonder if my graduation certificate is any good). I went to the counseling office but they were unconcerned because I wasn’t starting college the following fall. I did eventually graduate college in 2005 but never had to take civics either. I learned everything from this blog, my research for my spouse’s citizenship and matching names with leaders labels like speaker. Jon Stewart taught me how many corrupt politicians we have. I guess my education was unconventional. 🙂

    Employers aren’t paying for training anymore. Those corporate practices are rare!

  14. WADR, I could care less if a student didn’t know who James Madison was. That is a perfect example of teaching “facts” rather than critical thinking. I would prefer they could explain manifest destiny and its role in the development of our country and our current crisis of democracy.

  15. Linda, excellent point! I say you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him think. When I was young, we had courses like Indiana History, US History, World History, Civics. Most of my classmates learned enough to pass, but not a lot more. The courses were somewhat sanitized, but they were adequate to have given everyone some knowledge of how things work. A few of us understood what we were offered and made up for what was lacking in other venues, like book club.

  16. AgingLGirl –
    WOW! The reason you didn’t receive the required gov’t class is inexcusable. I am shocked that your school administrators didn’t do whatever needed to be done to add another gov’t class. I imagine you weren’t the only student that missed out. Shame on those lazy administrators for not caring.

    At least you’ve managed to make up for being cheated out of a necessary part of your education and you should be proud for caring enough to learn.

  17. Thank you Nancy.
    I’ve made up for my public school education and misogyny over the years. I appreciate your post so much.

  18. I took U.S. History in 1955 when I was a junior in high school. The teacher’s constant assignment was “outline the book”. This meant she didn’t need to prep for class or exert herself to provide any additional information. I have made up for this lack quite satisfactorily through reading and through knowledgeable people. But it brings up some questions in my mind. Why was this teacher so poorly prepared to teach history and/or civics? We used to have a required class called Government and Sociology in 8th grade, and I honestly remember very little of it, but at least an effort was made to go beyond “outline the book”, and we were introduced to the three branches of government and talked about it in class.

    I am appalled at the obvious ignorance of so many people when it comes to knowledge of who we are as a nation. If we don’tknow that, then I think we are doomed to authoritarian demagogues leading the way through lies and more bigotry. Someone said you can’t fool all rhe people all the time, but I’m not so sure about that.

  19. For the last 40 years, corporate interests have pushed state and federal governments to require EVERY student to acquire more math, science, and technology credits to graduate from high school. Every student is not going to and need not become an engineer or scientist or computer programmer, but every student needs to understand their government and their civic responsibility to be an informed voter. Unfortunately, civics was squeezed out of the schedule by non-educators who thought profits and robotic worker bees were the end all of education.

    I’m glad some corporate interests are finally beginning to realize that civics are important. It used to be a two-semester, required subject in the senior year when so many kids were becoming old enough to vote. I wish that were still the case.

    Students also need the freedom to study, discuss, and debate controversial and complex subjects. They do not need book bans and censorship of controversial issues such as slavery, constitutional conflicts, or our national shortcomings. Learning to explore and analyze different sides of issues is what education is all about. As corporate interests are belatedly learning, intentional ignorance comes back to haunt us.

  20. I have learned more civics from this blog and the comments on it than I ever did in school. My educational experience included, American history, World history (both in HS and college) as well as Civics in HS. So much of what has pushed me to learn more have been things like Ken Burns programs on the Civil War and American Buffalo, to say nothing of “Caste”, “The Warmth of Other Suns”, “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America “, Sheila’s books, Heather Cox Richardson and Jay Kuo
    and many others. Thanks to all who help me fulfill my daily challenge to learn something new every day.

  21. JD – check this book out to learn more about how we got here: “The Guarded Gate”.

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