For the past month the news has been filled with a seemingly endless stream of topics that have sparked controversy and unrest in our nation, from Charlottesville to DACA to Puerto Rico to “take a knee.”
Each new event draws people to the public forum of our day—social media—with the same result: individuals express their views, but only engage with those with which they agree while speaking past, dismissing or even demonizing those with different perspectives.
As I’ve watched this pattern repeat, I have become increasingly convinced of the need for greater focus on civic education in our schools.
In full disclosure, I have taught American government for the past 12 years, so I am admittedly a bit biased when discussing the importance of social studies. However, you don’t have to be a social studies teacher to be alarmed by the research showing severe deficiencies in our students’ civic knowledge.
For example, the annual Annenberg Constitution Day survey paints a troubling picture. While the headline-grabber is that only 26 percent of Americans can identify all three branches of government, deeper analysis reveals troubling statistics about a fundamental misunderstanding of basic civil liberties and civil rights.
Partially in response to results like these, several states have recently passed laws requiring high school students to pass the test administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as part of naturalization, while others, including my home state of South Carolina, have passed legislation requiring students to take, but not necessarily pass, all or part of this test prior to graduation.
On one level, I’m glad to see this increased interest in civics education from policy makers. I believe you can determine what we value most in education based on what we measure, so an increased desire to evaluate civic competency is a step in the right direction. However, social studies remains the only traditional “core” content area that is not required to be assessed for accountability under federal law.
More importantly, the types of assessments being proposed for civic education do little to provide meaningful tools for improving civic education. Assessments like the naturalization test only require students to master a small set of recall and memorization questions. Last year, former Secretary of Education John King accurately categorized this type of knowledge as “civics-lite.”
A willingness to settle for “civics-lite” instruction and curriculum poses a grave threat to the future health of our democracy, and examples of this danger can be found in so many of the events of the past month.
One such example can be found in Charlottesville. The kind of hate on display last month is often the result of one of two things: ignorance or, as Nelson Mandela famously noted, “people must learn to hate.” Quality civic education can play a key role in combatting both the ignorance and learning that fuels hate.
A strong social studies curriculum can help students learn about tolerance, civil rights and civil liberties, and lessons about our nation’s past—even, and especially, the parts that are hardest to discuss. Our ability to identify solutions to our nation’s legacies of slavery and racism will continue to be limited without a more complete understanding of our history.
A quality civic education also helps students learn skills essential for effective democratic citizenship—things like how to build and support arguments, engage in critical thinking, and collaborate and compromise. The study of social studies also helps students learn to respectfully share views within disagreement.
So much energy has rightfully been put into emphasizing the importance of math and science education over the past decade, but if we continue to do so without also supporting civic education, we run the risk of educating a generation of students without the civic capacity to use their learning to build a better community. Preventing that outcome requires providing students with opportunities for authentic learning about the skills and knowledge necessary for life-long civic engagement and active citizenship.
There are already several great initiatives doing this type of work, including Generation Citizen and the Center for Civic Education’s We the People and Project Citizen programs. However, most programs have costs, which is why funding streams like Title IV of ESSA are so critically important. We should also seek to provide more opportunities for students to engage in their own service learning projects, like this student-initiated and student-implemented collaboration between Teen Republicans and Teen Democrats at my school.
— Blythewood SBO (@blythewood_sbo) September 13, 2017
Each year, I include this quote from James Madison on my course syllabi: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” To fully “arm” our citizens, we need to stop treating social studies as an elective and instead recognize it as an essential building block of democratic society.