Civic Education: Another Partisan Flash Point

By Eliza Newlin Carney

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Anthony Garand on Unsplash

It’s easy to say the nation needs more civic education, as policy makers on left and right increasingly seem to agree, but it’s a lot harder to define precisely what that means.

Do we need to bring the Constitution “back” to the classroom, as Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is arguing in Florida? Or do we need to take kids on field trips to climate rallies, as New York City teachers tried to do last week, only to be banned from the protests by the city’s Education Department?

Teachers have long been caught between traditionalists who argue students should stick to primary texts, and reformists who promote “action” or “living” civics. But as I write in The Fulcrum this month, the notion that students must choose between traditional history classes and hands-on democratic engagement presents a false choice.

Experts in the field have long agreed that the most effective civic learning combines both classes in government, history and law, and applied activities that give students the tools to actively engage in government. As I write: “Civic education must teach students the full American story — the good and the bad, the written and the unwritten. It must also help students understand how to vote, speak up and hold government to account.” Read the whole story here.

THE “QUEEN OF FIELD TRIPS.” One teacher who has found a way to make history relevant for her students is Alysha Butler, the first Washington, D.C., educator to be named National History Teacher of the Year. The award is given out by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which is celebrating its 25th year. As Butler told WAMU, she is “always searching for that missing voice to give a more complete picture” of American history.

AMERICANS ARE STILL FLUNKING CIVICS. That’s the conclusion of The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s recently-released 2019 Constitution Day Survey. The survey did contain one bright spot: Americans know a just tad more about the Constitution and the separation of powers than in the recent past. But that’s not saying much. Only 39 percent of American adults can correctly name the three (executive, legislative and judicial) branches of government. Not surprisingly, those who studied civics in high school knew the most, as did those who most closely follow the news.

PUBLIC EDUCTION’S CIVIC ROOTS. Americans aren’t just flunking civics, they’re “Flunking Democracy,” argues scholar Michael A. Rebell in his recent book by that title. Political scientist Danielle Allen cites Rebell’s book in a recent Washington Post column that joins the chorus of those calling for expanded civic education. Allen notes that the whole idea behind public education to begin with, according to Rebell, was to prepare citizens “to exercise their rights and responsibilities.” She writes: “As Rebell demonstrates, the record of debates around state constitutions shows that the first and most important purpose for public education was to support civics education.”

Eliza Newlin Carney is a journalist and founder of The Civic Circle.

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