Humanist EDge: Why Is Civics Education Needed?

Democracy requires citizen participation to ensure that it continues and works. Simply voting for a president every four years isn’t enough, and only slightly more than half of eligible voters did that much in the 2016 presidential election—hitting a twenty-year low. Voter turnout in local elections has been even worse over the years due to a general lack of confidence in the political system and viable candidates—as well as more voter restriction laws and intimidation. Currently only 18 percent of Americans trust the federal government—down from 59 percent in 1964—so it is imperative for us to not only understand how government functions but also to know how we can make it function better. To support and sustain democracy, citizens must have knowledge, skill, and agency, all of which come from a good civics education. Sadly, such education is greatly lacking in the United States.

On February 21, the Center for American Progress (CAP) in Washington, DC, held an event titled, “The Role of Civics Education in Creating a Healthy Democracy” with a keynote speech by Bob Graham, former US senator and former Governor of Florida, and a panel of educators to further discuss how we can improve civics education. (Watch the full event online.) Promotional materials for the event explained that civics education is essential because “it equips students with the skills to understand their system of government, rights and responsibilities, and mechanisms of participation.”

Our Founding Fathers wanted educated citizens to secure a democratic government driven by respect for the separation of powers, free press and free religious exercise, and the rights of political minorities. Graham recalled that when he was in school the standard was three years of civics courses. His grandchildren have taken less than one semester. He explained that schools stopped teaching civics in the 1970s due to concerns about motives. The Far Left worried civics would convince students to support the Vietnam War. The Far Right was fearful that it would make students want to support civil rights. It wasn’t until 2009 that people pushed to make civics education required again, but budget cuts in 2013 limited that progress. Currently, only nine states and the District of Columbia require one full year of US government or civics, and another thirty states require only half a year (Wisconsin provides half a year but doesn’t require it).

Graham pointed out that the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School—the site of the February 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida—are part of the first wave of students who received recent civics education. By speaking up to end gun violence—both in rallies and directly with representatives of government and the NRA—they are demonstrating how educating young people about their rights and responsibilities can make them more empowered to take action. Within ten days after the shooting, they secured media time, trended on social media, raised millions of dollars for the March for Our Lives (March 24), organized several school walk outs, and connected with other mass shooting survivors to increase their impact. One of their strongest messages is the threat that they will soon be able to vote all NRA-supporting politicians out of office.

Still, the recent CAP report on “The State of Civics Education” concluded that “no state currently provides sufficient and comprehensive civic education.” According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s 2016 survey, only 26 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government—yet 75 percent could name each of the Three Stooges. Equally concerning is the statistic that less than half of Americans can name a Supreme Court justice, while 66 percent know at least one American Idol judge. Several states require students to pass a citizenship test, but that only measures one’s ability to memorize facts. Schools should do more than prepare students for college or careers; they should empower them to be thoughtful democratic citizens.

Fortunately, some states are improving their efforts and nonprofits—like Rock the Vote, Generation Citizens, College Board, and Southern Poverty Law Center—are providing better curriculum, teacher training, and engaging projects. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor founded iCivics in 2009 “to restore civic education in our nation’s schools.” The National Action Civics Collaborative provides “an experiential, youth-centered approach to civic education—to create a world that invites young people to take collective action inside and outside the classroom.” For more detailed recommendations on how to implement civics education, see “The Republic is (Still) at Risk and Civics is Part of the Solution” from the Democracy at a Crossroads National Summit. Many are hopeful that the 2016 presidential election sparked a new awareness of the need for civics.

CAP panelist Scott Warren, CEO of Generation Citizen, didn’t think a civics would be enough though, stressing that schools need to provide a student-centered and student-driven democratic culture to teach beyond the institutions and processes of government and enable students to practice competencies. Research, public speaking, media literacy, writing, collaborating, and debating are all essential skills. Teachers must encourage students to contemplate: What is going on in your communities, and how does it impact you? What can you do to fix it? What research is needed, whose jurisdiction does it fall under (i.e. principal, school board, mayor, etc.), and where can you find assistance to do more? Along with model United Nations, schools could use courtroom, school board, community board, and labor union structures to show students how democracy exists in various forms.

The focus on math and reading proficiency has distracted from civics and other subjects, instead of incorporating them. Panelist Stephanie Sanford, College Board’s chief of global policy & external relations, highlighted an effort to use documents such as the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in the SAT and PSAT reading sections to expose millions of students to the fundamental framework of our nation. Also the recently redesigned AP Government and Politics course requires study of a specified set of fifteen Supreme Court cases and nine foundational documents. This is great, but many students don’t take AP courses, and civics education must begin before high school, especially if the voting age is lowered to sixteen as some people propose it should be.

One concern the speakers at the Center for American Progress event only touched on is what can be done to re-engage millennial voters—currently the largest and most diverse voting group by age—who are out of school and losing faith in democracy. Millennials should educate themselves more on the issues and relevant players, but they also need organizations to get accurate public information out to combat fake news, especially on social media. Politicians must prove they are listening and working for all Americans. And society needs to promote engagement. Voting is important but it’s not enough to save our democracy.