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Countering Our Political Coarseness

Countering Our Political Coarseness

The 24/7 news cycle amplifies cynical political dialogue, and young Americans are bearing the brunt of it. Hans Zeiger on the nation’s civics crisis.

Hans Zeiger

The long-running National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP)—often called “the nation’s report card”—recently released the latest civics and history test scores for America’s eighth graders. The results are dismal: Only 13 percent scored proficient or above in history, and only 22 percent scored proficient or above in civics.

Sadly, the new data on civics show a decline in comparison with the last assessment. This marks the first-ever such decline, whereas the decline in basic fluency in American history began in 2014. The history portion of the NAEP Assessment started in 1994 and the civics portion began in 1998, with testing every four years, so there’s a decent body of comparative data across the years.

While we’re failing to teach civics and history to the next generation, we’re fully exposing our students to other aspects of political life that are filtered through social media and the saturated twenty-four-hour news cycle. Sadly, they are seeing the coarsest, most cynical aspects of American politics. To process information like this, young people—just like all of us—need a grounding in a sense of who they are. If people don’t have a common picture of certain foundational ideas and ideals in a highly pluralistic society like ours, we are at real risk of fracturing. Indeed, we see signs of fracturing all around us.

We have also elevated STEM subjects over civics and history in recent decades. Understandably, we’re interested in the economic well-being of our society and we want our kids to be able to get good jobs, but we’ve sidelined citizen formation in the process. We should aspire to make our students more than consumers and workers—we should strive to make them citizens, too.

In view of all of this, it is worth reminding ourselves why civics matters. Simply, the goal of a good civic education is to have thinking citizens. We’re all in charge in this self-governing society. We share the responsibility for this shared experiment in human freedom. We must learn how to talk about politics with one another, how to make sense of the Constitution, and why the American creed of equality and liberty is worth defending.

America is built on the radical notion that every citizen can and should be a good thinker—and the first step to developing the right habits of mind is a knowledge of our Constitution’s first principles. Civics is more than just teaching people that they should vote at election time. It is also more than just factual knowledge, like how many justices sit on the Supreme Court or the functions of the three branches of government. Civics is about reflective knowledge, or what Ronald Reagan called “informed patriotism.”

It is similarly worth thinking through why history matters. We need to know the national stories we hold in common so we have a sense of what America is and why we are so privileged to be American citizens. Those writing curricula and teaching our students today bear an extra responsibility to widen their lenses while committing themselves to facts over politics.

Learning America’s stories is not something that can be covered in a semester; it requires deep study over a long time, and it’s an education that should start early. Beginning with stories about our Founders and other national heroes in grade school, American history classes should build to an unflinching confrontation with the debates about our country’s past in high school and college.

Both sides of the political spectrum are looking for simple answers to disputes about curricula, but they are unlikely to find them. The insertion of ideology into the teaching of history today is an important factor in turning students off to it. This fraught tendency is compounded by the simple fact that in many school districts we are not taking time to teach the core texts and stories of America at all. What is most sorely needed is a content-based approach that will initiate students into the broad American political tradition, rather than training left-wing activists or right-wing agitators.

The good news is that there are millions of Americans who are well-positioned to solve the nation’s civics and history crisis. Teachers and principals, parents and grandparents, scholars and community volunteers all have a role to play. Some of the recovery of civics and history must happen in venues as diverse as Scout troops, YouTube channels, and family dinner tables—in other words, outside of the formal classroom. Citizens across this country care about civics, and that is a reason to have hope.

But much of the civic renewal we need must undoubtedly take place in our classrooms. States should invest in professional development for teachers, and, in the case of civics and history, professional development should be focused on reading actual documents from American history and learning the best practices for teaching them. In the ten states where scholars affiliated with my organization, the Jack Miller Center, provide professional development for social studies teachers, we find teachers are eager to read and discuss America’s foundational texts. While teachers receive plentiful training in pedagogy in education schools, they receive far too little formal instruction in the teaching of primary sources. Fortunately, the Jack Miller Center is not alone in working to change this. The Bill of Rights Institute, the Ashbrook Center, the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, and the National Constitution Center are among the organizations providing high-quality professional development centered on America’s historical documents.

Civic renewal efforts should be targeted to the state and local levels. The states are ultimately responsible for educating the next generation of citizens; local governments are invested with the power to craft standards and curricula, which is all to the good since they are better positioned to get the buy-in that is needed from taxpaying parents and teachers. A massive influx of federal funding, as some in Congress are proposing, would bypass those crucial mediating institutions that we need to inspire a revival in civics and history education.

Let’s be honest: teaching civics and history is hard work. For many students, reading seemingly arcane texts written generations ago can be a chore. But the ideas at the heart of the American experiment—self-government, universal human dignity, justice itself—are also at the heart of what it means to be human. Skilled civics and history teachers are the heroes our republic needs, and we should be providing them with as much support and encouragement as we can.

Hans Zeiger is president of the Jack Miller Center, a nationwide network of scholars and teachers who are committed to advancing the core texts and ideas of the American political tradition.

Image: Three letterprints by Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr. Left to right: "Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom. -- George Washington Carver," 2005, (Library of Congress); "We who believe in freedom cannot rest. – Ella Baker," 2012, (Library of Congress); "Whatever my individual desires were to be free, I was not alone. There were many others who felt the same way / Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr.," 2012, (Library of Congress).  

CultureDemocracyPolitical PhilosophyUnited States