What’s the Point of Civics Education?


The unique Star-Spangled Banner, which flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 and inspired the words of our National Anthem, because it was displayed in what’s now the National Museum of American History.

As a man who taught highschool civics back within the last century, I even have some admittedly old-fashioned notions about civics instruction. As an illustration, it could sound archaic to some, but I still think civics should entail teaching students about our political, social, and economic systems; the rights and responsibilities of residents; and how one can engage within the political process.

Apparently, all of this puts me wildly out of step with the times. A minimum of, that’s the apparent takeaway from a recent RAND Corp. survey of K–12 teachers, examining how they consider civic and citizenship education. The national study, released earlier this month, utilized questions drawn from the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study.

The researchers found that few teachers appeared to consider that civic education requires teaching students concerning the core institutions or knowledge upon which civil society rests. Asked for the highest three goals of civic education, just 23 percent of teachers said certainly one of them is “promoting knowledge of social, political, and civic institutions.” Just 2 in 5 said a top-three aim was “promoting knowledge of residents’ rights and responsibilities,” and just 11 percent thought a top-three priority was developing students’ capability to defend their perspective.

I used to be gobsmacked by the outcomes. I mean, I’ve all the time thought it fairly uncontroversial to assume that students have to understand how judges get appointed or how Congress works if we expect them to learn, engaged residents. And I believed the entire “rights-and-responsibilities of residents” thing was one place where we could all just about agree, a minimum of in principle.

Yet, not even one fourth of teachers rank knowledge of political and civic institutions as a top-three concern?! Not even half think promoting knowledge of residents’ rights and responsibilities makes the highest three?! Barely 1 in 10 think it’s necessary that students have the ability to articulate their beliefs?!

I truthfully don’t know what to make of that. I’m tempted guilty the query wording or the survey instrument, except that the questions are pretty straightforward, and the survey has been used across the globe.

Some readers, I think, will say, “See, I knew it! This can be a consequence of politicizing civics education.” As regular readers know, I even have loads of concerns along that line. Except, the evidence doesn’t really suggest that that’s a significant factor. As an illustration, just 27 percent cited promoting environmental activism as a top-three aim, just 20 percent named “anti-racism,” and just 5 percent mentioned preparing students for future political engagement.

What teachers appear to be embracing as a substitute is a notion of civics education that is basically content-free. Probably the most regularly cited aim, offered by about two thirds of teachers, is “promoting students’ critical and independent considering.” The one other aim named by even half of teachers was “developing students’ skills and competencies in conflict resolution.”

I’m all for critical considering. But critical fascinated about what? Clearly, it’s not about social, political, or civic institutions; the rights-and-responsibilities of residents; how one can defend one’s beliefs; or how one can engage within the political process. That is critical considering as a pleasant-sounding placeholder. Considering critically about pressing conflicts (much less resolving them) inevitably requires historical understanding and substantive knowledge. That seems to have gotten lost.

In an era when researchers have reported that just 26 percent of Americans can name the three branches of presidency or that only about 1 in 3 Americans can pass the nation’s citizenship test, the implications of ignorance are glaring. We see the results day by day playing out on social media, in our tribal politics, and in performative civic leadership.

We desperately need civics and citizenship instruction that prepares students to do higher. Meaning helping students cultivate the requisite knowledge, skills, and habits. But step one, it could appear, is convincing teachers that that is price doing.

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