Civics education is all the rage. If there’s any issue that the nation’s political leaders agree upon, it’s this: that the teaching of civics and knowledgeable, responsible citizenship has never been more important or necessary. A recent Newsweek headline sums up the widespread view: “When We Fail to Teach Our Kids the Basics About Civics, We Risk Losing Our Democracy.”
Support for civics education cuts across the political spectrum. Advocates include Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers; former Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer; district courts that offer teachers’ institutes in seven states; and Texas’s Republican-dominated Legislature and Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey.
What does civics education entail? There are a lot of disagreements, but certain goals are widely shared:
- To teach students about the history and the workings of the political, judicial and civil institutions upon which democratic self-government rests.
- To familiarize students with this nation’s foundational documents and the controversies surrounding constitutional rights.
- To introduce students to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship
- To teach students how to speak across differences in background and political views and resolve conflicts.
- To give students opportunities to take part in reasoned, responsible discussions about the many challenges that contemporary society faces, for example, those involving inequality, the environment, the proper size of government, the role of the courts and how best to balance democratic ideals against concerns for electoral integrity.
All these goals make sense to me. But at the college level, we need to move up a notch. After all, we already offer courses in American and state government.
I wholeheartedly agree with the Civic Learning and Democracy Engagement Coalition, which declared last year in a widely endorsed statement of Shared Commitments, we need to make civic learning for an engaged democracy an expected part of a college education.
Fueling the recent interest in civics education is a widespread consensus among the country’s political elites that knowledge about the United States’ framework of government and its history has eroded, that tribalism of media sources is exacerbating our differences, and that the stalemates and scorched-earth strategies emanating from Congress are contributing to a deepening cynicism and a mistrust in government.
Worse yet, our democracy has not yet lived up to its promises of full participation and equal opportunity for large swaths of U.S. society. All this has contributed to an intense political polarization and a reduced participation in the civic and community organizations that have been at the historic heart of this country’s public life.
Soberingly, as many as two-thirds of Americans now think U.S. democracy is in crisis.
If American democracy is to thrive, we need a citizenry with a common civic knowledge base as well as the civic skills and dispositions that are essential to informed, respectful debate.
Indeed, among the reasons that this society established one of the world’s first systems of public education was to prepare a citizenry capable of democratic self-government. But today, per-pupil federal spending on K-12 history and civics education averages $0.05 a year, in contrast to $50 annually on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.
As I’ve written in the past, civics education has three broad goals:
- To ensure that students grasp the nature and principles of the American system of government and how and why these have evolved over time.
- To cultivate skills essential to responsible citizenship, such as the ability to weigh evidence, grasp conflicting perspectives and make and defend arguments in a logical, reasoned, evidence-based arguments.
- To help students develop the dispositions essential for the functioning of a diverse, democratic society, including the values of tolerance, empathy, open-mindedness and respect for differing perspectives.
But the problem isn’t simply that students lack civic knowledge or civic skills or the appropriate disposition. It’s that we’ve lost sight of the idea that college’s primary purpose isn’t career preparation or even economic mobility. Colleges exist to serve society. That’s the Wisconsin idea that arose during the early 20th-century Progressive era and an idea that our institutions need to reaffirm.
No one has done more to promote the importance of integrating civic and public purpose into a college education than AAC&U, and I feel confident that their participation in the Civic Learning and Democracy Engagement Coalition will significantly advance this cause.
AAC&U’s track record speaks for itself. It championed the LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) initiative, which promoted the high-impact practices that can significantly enhance the value of an undergraduate education and developed and disseminated a set of essential learning outcomes that a college education should achieve, as well as the VALUE rubrics that provide a practical way to assess student learning outcomes.
Today, the AAC&U has doubled down on the connections between democracy and liberal learning and launched an influential effort on truth, racial healing and transformation, which seeks to dismantle racial hierarchies and build more equitable campus communities. I absolutely share their determination to make educational excellence inclusive rather than exclusive.
Similarly, no one has done more than Campus Compact—a national coalition of colleges and universities—to uphold higher education’s public purposes and drive civic engagement and community development initiatives across all sectors of postsecondary education. A new alliance within the coalition brings rich resources to the work of renewing our democracy and higher education’s commitment to the public square.
So, how might we best infuse an education that emphasizes civic and public purpose into the college curriculum? Let me offer some possible strategies.
1. An inquiry approach that rests on the close reading of documents, especially those that lay out this society’s foundational values and the political, constitutional and legal debates and controversies that have ensued.
2. A comparative approach that analyzes how the United States resembles and differs from other nations. In an essay that I find exceptionally impressive, Peter H. Schuck, the Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law Emeritus at Yale, identifies the ways that the United States is exceptional:
- Politically, in its two-party system; the brevity of its constitution and how infrequently it’s been amended; the number, length and cost of elections; and the judiciary’s power.
- Legally, in the Constitution’s emphasis on negative as opposed to positive rights; its protections for speech, expression and commercial advertising; and the country’s litigious, adversarial legal culture.
- Institutionally, in the power and discretion of federal agencies; the distinctive nature of American federalism, with its decentralized educational, criminal justice, transportation and occupational licensing systems; a highly stratified system of higher education; and unusually large number of big corporations that possess significant political as well as economic power.
- Ideologically, in the weakness of labor unions, the absence of a strong socialist party, the acceptance of relatively high levels of economic inequality, the delayed and limited development of government welfare and health programs, and the big role of private think tanks, philanthropies, religious and nongovernmental organizations in policy formulation and the delivery of social services.
- Socially, in its ethnic, religious and racial diversity; powerful evangelical and moralizing movements; large numbers of children in single-parent families; high rates of ethnic intermarriage; and the unusually frequent incidence of violence.
- Economically, in its lower tax rates; diverse, decentralized financial markets; emphasis on entrepreneurship; lower rates of unionization; and smaller number of workplace and business regulations.
- Culturally, in its emphasis on individualism, consumerism and market competition.
3. An experiential approach in which every undergraduate participates in a civic engagement activity.
How, you might well ask, can we scale an experiential approach to civics education? Here are a few suggestions.
One way forward is to institute a civic engagement requirement that can be met by taking a course that requires students to participate in a civic-minded activity: tutoring neighborhood students, taking part in a local cleanup drive, registering voters, writing lawmakers or volunteering at a food bank.
When I was at Columbia, I supported after-school programs in philosophy and neuroscience that proved enormously popular among students at neighboring high schools. Far from being regarded as condescending, paternalistic acts of noblesse oblige, these initiatives were viewed as energizing and empowering partnerships.
Another approach is to encourage faculty-led projects that have a public service component. I have previously mentioned one such project: the development of a gamelike app that medical centers use to draw out information from the notoriously reticent adolescents experiencing chronic pain.
In my discipline, history, I can think of a number of socially purposeful projects. My university lacks a campus history museum that engages with its fraught past: the appropriation of predominantly Black neighborhoods on which much of the campus was built; the gay purges during the 1940s, when a president was dismissed for harboring “perverts”; the troubled and incredibly slow path toward racial integration; the controversies that have surrounded women’s athletics; and much more. Students could research and design exhibits for a physical or virtual museum.
Another history example would involve the creation of a resource repository for K-12 teachers that would include collections of primary sources on the Black, Latinx and Asian American experience and other topics.
Yet another approach is to introduce more practicums, clinicals, community- and field-based courses. By engaging in supervised practice—in a classroom, an agency, a hospital or some other setting—students have the opportunity to apply classroom learning in a real-world context.
Then there is service learning, which, at its best, tackles a genuine local problem and then, through research, identifies a range of policy responses and, in some cases, works in collaboration with local community groups or government to implement a solution. Here, of course, we must recognize that the primary purpose of service learning is to benefit a client. The payback to the students grows out of addressing the client’s challenges.
Civics education need not be divisive, nor must it disregard the ideological and partisan divisions or contentious debates over fundamental civic issues that have divided the republic since its founding. As a society, our students do need to develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions that are essential for a diverse, democratic society to the function in a tolerant, broad-minded and respectful manner.
But our aim should go well beyond duplicating what’s already taught in introductory courses on American and state government. I wholly agree with Carol Geary Schneider, president emerita of AAC&U and now actively engaged in the CLDE Coalition, that our ultimate goal should be to infuse civic and public purpose into a college education for all college learners, including those in career and technical programs. That’s not beyond our ability, and it’s certainly not inconsistent with our other goals: to provide career preparation and a well-rounded liberal education, and to equip graduates to meet the complex array of personal and societal challenges they will face as adults.
Colleges and universities, more than any other social institution, apart from the military, are the environments in which the American ideals of diversity, inclusion and equity are best, if only partially, realized. But let’s not treat our campuses as walled gardens or ivory towers. Let’s bridge the town-gown divide, reach out beyond our campuses and truly embrace John Dewey’s vision of an education that emphasizes civic engagement, experiential learning and courses and programming on themes in the public sphere. Above all, let’s reaffirm the Wisconsin idea: that higher education has a responsibility to serve the public.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.