Tag Archives: civic education

Civic Education– One More Time

In a recent essay, Robert Reich asked a supremely important question: how do we educate for the common good? His answer echoed my own belief–reiterated constantly on this blog and elsewhere– that we need to do a much, much better job of civic education.

Reich began

I think about those 19 children who were murdered in their classroom on Tuesday, and feel the need to go back to basics — to the common good. Given the the difficulty of enacting sensible laws to reduce gun violence — which reflects in part the deepening split between Americans who believe in democracy and those who are throwing in their lot with Trump authoritarians — the question I keep coming back to is: what can we can do to rekindle a sense of common good?

One of the most important initiatives would be to restart civic education in our schools.

Reich anticipates the nay-sayers, who will undoubtedly point out that our public schools are under a fierce and unremitting  attack from the Right, putting  school boards, educators, and students “in the crosshairs of culture warriors.” But he suggests that– paradoxically– “this might be exactly the right time to push for civic education.”

Why is the time right? And why does Reich link civic education to the common good? What’s wrong with the status quo?

Among other things, the essay points to what is a hot-button issue for me: the widely-accepted belief that education is basically a consumer good–that it is indistinguishable from job training.

Today, most people view education as a personal (or family) investment in future earnings. That’s one reason so much of the cost of college is now put on students and their families, and why so many young people graduate with crippling college loans. (When education is seen as a personal investment yielding private returns, there’s no reason why anyone other than the “investor” should pay for it.)

As regular readers of this blog know, that equation of education with an investment in future earnings drives me absolutely up the wall. Not only is genuine education a far broader benefit to the individual, it is–as Reich writes–a public good that builds the capacity of the nation to govern itself.

Franklin and America’s other founders knew how easily emperors and kings could mislead the public. The survival of the new republic required citizens imbued, in the language of the time, with civic virtue. “Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other,” Jefferson warned. But if the new nation could “enlighten the people generally . . . tyranny and the oppressions of mind and body will vanish, like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

Reich traced the history of public education, and the civic motivations of those who insisted upon its importance:

The person most credited with founding American public schooling, Massachusetts educator Horace Mann, directly linked public education to democracy. “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people,” he wrote, “must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.” Mann believed it important that public schools educate all children together, “in common.” The mix of ethnicities, races, and social classes in the same schools would help children learn the habits and attitudes of citizenship. The goal extended through higher education as well. Charles W. Eliot, who became president of Harvard in 1869, believed “the best solution to the problem of national order lay in the education of individuals to the ideals of service, stewardship, and cooperation.”

The essay concludes with what Reich calls the six elements of civics education. I particularly liked numbers 5 and 6:

Such an education must encourage civic virtue. It should explain and illustrate the profound differences between doing whatever it takes to win, and acting for the common good; between getting as much as one can get for oneself, and giving back to society; between seeking personal celebrity, wealth, or power, and helping build a better society for all. And why the latter choices are morally necessary.

Finally, civic virtue must be practiced. Two years of required public service would give young people an opportunity to learn civic responsibility by serving the common good directly. It should be a duty of citizenship.

A concerted emphasis on civic virtue might eventually change the nature of America’s social incentives, which now are disproportionately weighted toward rewarding greed and celebrity. And–again, as regular readers know, I have long been an advocate for a year or two of mandatory public service.

As Reich concedes, there’s no guarantee that improving and focusing on civic education will lead to more civil and informed discourse, or make us more able to enact sensible legislation.

But it sure couldn’t hurt.

YES!

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.

Effective Civic Education…In Hong Kong

What is the purpose of civic education?

I could argue–indeed, I have argued–that people who don’t understand the basic structure of their country’s government lack personal efficacy. They don’t know where to go to get their problems with officialdom solved, for one thing.

The argument focused on democratic self-government is obvious: people who don’t know how the system is supposed to work aren’t prepared to cast informed votes.

These observations are true, but incomplete. A recent article in the New York Times reminded me that civic ignorance also aids and abets autocracy. The article reported on Beijing’s belief that civics education has contributed to the uprising in Hong Kong .

HONG KONG — They are sitting in orderly rows, wearing neatly pressed uniforms. But in this class, as they debate the merits of democracy and civil rights, Hong Kong high school students are prompting Beijing to worry that they are increasingly out of control.

The mandatory civics course known here as liberal studies has been a hallmark of the curriculum in Hong Kong for years, and students and teachers say the point is to make better citizens who are more engaged with society.

But mainland Chinese officials and pro-Beijing supporters say the prominence of the city’s youth at recent mass protests is the clearest sign yet that this tradition of academic freedom has gone too far, giving rise to a generation of rebels.

It is certainly the case that both university and high-school students have been active participants in the current protests.  And according to the article, students are planning class boycotts intended to ramp up pressure on the government to enact universal suffrage and fully withdraw the contentious extradition bill that triggered the current uprisings.[Update: the government has fully withdrawn the extradition bill, so to that extent, the protests were successful.]

On the mainland, China approaches education as indoctrination.

China’s ruling Communist Party has long seen education as a crucial ideological tool for nurturing loyal citizens. Under Xi Jinping, the country’s authoritarian leader, the party has ramped uppatriotic education on the mainland, helping shape one of the most nationalistic generations of youth that the country has seen in years.

The U.S. has its share of “patriots” who also believe that the nation’s schools should be a venue for inculcating the “proper” perspectives and values. We have an even larger percentage of lawmakers who equate education with job training, and dismiss the importance of a liberal education and the creation of knowledgable , participating citizens.

We have far too many politicians who would enthusiastically agree with Xu Luying, who was quoted in the article:

“There is indeed a problem with the national education of Hong Kong’s youth,” said Xu Luying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, at a news conference last month. “Passionately loving the country and passionately loving the motherland should be taught in the first class in school.”

In fact, the critique of Hong Kong’s civics course sounds depressingly familiar. In recent surveys, Republicans have soured on higher education, and make similar accusations.

Many educators and democracy advocates in Hong Kong say the course teaches students to be analytical and objective, even when it comes to examining the party’s flaws. To present a distorted version of history, they argue, is to undermine the intellectual rigor of a system that has consistently ranked among the top in global education indexes.

“They want to make young people dumber and less aware,” said Hoi Wai-hang, 38, who has taught liberal studies for 10 years.

But pro-Beijing officials have accused liberal studies of stoking anti-mainland sentiment.

Some, like Mr. Tung, the former Hong Kong leader, blame the curriculum. Others, including the Hong Kong Island Chaoren Association, a community organization with pro-Beijing views, blame the teachers. The group said in July that students should not have to take liberal studies classes at school because they could be swayed by the political beliefs of their teachers.

The conflict over civics instruction in Hong Kong has highlighted what the article calls “the increasingly untenable contradiction” between academic freedom as a core value and ideological control.

That contradiction isn’t limited to China and Hong Kong.

 

Buy This Book!

I think I may be in love with Al Franken. In fact, I think he’d be a great President! (Of course, next to the one we have, my cat would be a great President–and I don’t have a cat. Still…)

I just finished reading Al Franken: Giant of the Senate. I recommend it highly–and not only for its humor. (But the humor is great.)

The book tells the story of Franken’s improbable voyage from Saturday Night Live (and other venues for less than decorous humor) to the U.S. Senate, and it is more informative than most textbooks if you want to learn about the political process, the operation of the United States Senate, the day to day job description of a Senator, and the pros and cons of a variety of thorny political issues.

As the flyleaf says, “it’s a book about what happens when the nation’s foremost progressive satirist gets a chance to serve in the United States Senate and, defying the expectations of the pundit class, actually turns out to be good at it.” It’s also “a book about our deeply polarized, frequently depressing, occasionally inspiring political culture, written from inside the belly of the beast.”

The book is a testament to democratic decision-making and public service, written by a mensch. (Google it.) Franken’s self-deprecating storytelling, his willingness to credit his staff and his family and even his constituents for his accomplishments, is particularly refreshing at a time when America’s Commander-in-Chief insists on taking personal credit for any event that is even remotely positive, whether he had anything to do with it or not. (Any day now, I fully expect him to take credit for the sun rising in the morning.)

If the real Al Franken is the same person who comes across in this book, he’s a great guy–down to earth, level-headed, self-aware–with a great sense of humor. (Genuine humor, when you think about it, requires a sense of proportion and an appreciation of reality.) Evidently, you can speak truth to power without being an asshole; you can be a committed progressive and still get along with equally committed conservatives; and you can take seriously your obligation to represent the people who live in your state without being a sanctimonious prig.

You can also learn how to be an effective “insider” without getting co-opted by “the system.”

The best thing about this book? It restored my faith in the possibilities of democracy. (Note the word “possibilities.”) Given Franken’s candid reporting on the current state of our nation, democracy is far from being realized, but it does remain a (tantalizing) possibility.

Buy the damn book.

The Evidence Keeps Accumulating…

Periodically, I use this blog to indulge a rant about Americans’ lack of civic literacy. (Regular readers are probably getting tired of my preoccupation with civic education–or more accurately, the lack thereof.) Be warned– I’m going to beat that dead horse again today.

A column written by Colbert King from the Washington Post has highlighted still another research project confirming Americans’ low levels of civic knowledge. 

King introduced the topic by noting what we might call “constitutional challenges” in Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign.

He proposed a religious test on immigration, promised to “open up” U.S. libel laws and revoked press credentials of critical reporters. He called for killing family members of terrorists, said he would do “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” terrorism suspects and suggested that a U.S.-born federal judge of Mexican heritage couldn’t be neutral because of his ethnicity. He whipped up animosity against Muslims and immigrants from Mexico, branding the latter as “rapists.”

When protesters interrupted his rallies, he cheered violence against them. He told a political opponent that if he won, he would “get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” adding “you’d be in jail.” He threatened not to respect election results if he didn’t win and, in Idi Amin fashion, made the claims of a strongman: “I alone can fix it.” He publicly expressed admiration for authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Cherished notions of religious freedom, a free press, an independent judiciary and the rights of minorities took a beating from him. The prospect of mob violence in his defense and imprisoning of political opponents found favor.

An electorate with even a basic understanding of the U.S. Constitution would have found these assaults on foundational American principles reprehensible. And in fairness, civically- educated Americans did recoil.

The problem is, we don’t have enough civically-educated Americans.

How did a pluralistic nation that propounds democratic values and practices come to this?

“This” not being the authoritarian in the White House who dismisses basic constitutional principles as if they were annoying gnats, but “this” — an electorate that looks past the disrespect shown toward democratic ideals.

That haunting question has occupied the minds of Richard D. Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey, two education scholars and writers who began to take a hard look at this fundamental domestic challenge long before November’s results came in.

Kahlenberg and Janey addressed the scope of the problem in a joint Century Foundation report released in November, “Putting Democracy Back into Public Education.” The report was also discussed in an article in the Atlantic, “Is Trump’s Victory the Jump-Start Civics Education Needed?”

Janey and Kahlenberg argue that our “schools are failing at what the nation’s founders saw as education’s most basic purpose: preparing young people to be reflective citizens who would value liberty and democracy and resist the appeals of demagogues.”

They said today’s schools turn themselves inside out trying to prepare “college-and-career ready” students who can contend with economic globalization and economic competition and find a niche with private skills in the marketplace.

As for preparing them for American democracy? Raising civics literacy levels? Cultivating knowledge of democratic practices and beliefs with rigorous courses in history, literature and how democratic means have been used to improve the country? Not so much or maybe not at all, they suggest.

This has to change. And in Indiana, at least, a number of us are committed to changing it.

Women4Change Indiana is currently launching an effort to increase civic education; I am heading up a subcommittee that will encourage the formation of book clubs around the state focused upon the history and philosophy of America’s constitution. We will also be enlisting volunteers who will advocate in their local school systems for inclusion of the “We the People” curriculum, which is now entirely voluntary. Research has demonstrated that We the People has a salutary, lasting influence on students who have gone through it.

Citizens will not–cannot–protect what they don’t understand.