If the events of the past few months have made anything clear, it is that we DO NOT need additional investments in civic education.
According to a study from CIRCLE at Tufts University, upwards of 55 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 cast their votes in the 2020 presidential election. It far exceeded initial estimates and past voting history. As a nation, we witnessed millions of young people exercise their First Amendment rights as protest to the inauguration of Donald J. Trump in 2017. We saw those rights exercised in 2018 in response to the Parkland school shootings. We saw it again this past spring and summer in response to the murder of George Floyd and in support of #BlackLivesMatter.
Civic engagement was on full display as young people organized virtual and physical doorknocking and phonebanking for the 2020 elections and the January 2021 Georgia runoffs. And whether we like it or not, civic engagement was witnessed as in Washington, DC on January 6 as protests and speech turned to riots and insurrection in the halls of the U.S. Capitol.
Last week, Andy “Eduwonk” Rotherham asked if “more” civic education is really the remedy we seek, suggesting the events of the last year seem to make pretty clear we collectively know our civics. And he is 100-percent correct.
Young people have clearly demonstrated, in both recent weeks and recent years, that they have been paying attention in their civics classes. Leading national funders have now collectively spent huge sums of money to promote civic education. As a result, we have a more politically active populace of young people. And the civic education space has achieved a major goal in rejecting Trump’s quest for a second term in office. In many ways, many of these funders and activists can now declare “mission accomplished” when it comes to civic education, a short-term win for a long-term issue.
But if we are going to learn – really learn – from recent civic activism and involvement, it is that civic education has spotlighted the glaring educational shortcomings that ensure that same education has lasting, meaningful impact in our communities. It has shown us the need to more deeply invest in the knowledge necessary to transform such action into long-term community action.
First and foremost, we have learned the insufficiency of our collective knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of American history. Just this month, we have witnessed how important it is to understand the 14th Amendment and the 25th Amendment. To know of the British attacking the Capitol in 1814, Vice President Calhoun’s potential insurrection prior to the Civil War, and how the election of 1876 shaped the modern Electoral College. At the same time, we have seen how little those voices on social media demanding action understand about these important topics.
Most of us can understand that a working knowledge of medicine demands a deep understanding of basic biology. By the same regard, those who advocate for greater civic education must understand that it demands a deep learning of history and government that serves as civics’ foundations. Civic education has little meaning if we don’t understand the history behind it.
History instruction is just the beginning. These civic lessons have also spotlighted our need for:
- A richer approach to literature and the arts, so learners can see how those before us shared and analyzed many of the challenges that can before us;
- A deeper appreciation for social and emotional learning, helping young people better process the stressors in their lives and how they interact with those who may share beliefs and opinions that conflict with their own; and
- A stronger focus on character education, allowing us to effectively engage in our great civic society in a more meaningful way.
It also means equipping learners with the benefits of a classically liberal education, providing the attributes we have long sought from 21st century skills, STEM, and even soft skills. All learners should yearn to become critical thinkers, as they move beyond rote memorization and develop the analytical and problem-solving skills needed to thrive in a global, digital, information economy. Where they all can embrace the innovation, collaboration, communication, adaptability, social responsibility, and balance on their path to life-long learning and to a life where civic engagement actually means something.
In the best of times, we can wax eloquent on equipping all in our society with civic skills and dispositions. In the worst of times, though, we can see how those who violently stormed the U.S. Capitol this month believed they were displaying those same skills and dispositions. Ultimately, we emerge stronger from both because of the knowledge and skills we bring to it.
As we seek to learn and grow from the events of the last few weeks, few months, and few years, we must understand that the answer is not simply more civic education. Instead, our focus must be on filling all of the gaps found in such learning, as we seek to give civics more foundation, more purpose, and more results. It is about taking what is taught and learned in civics, history, economics, and government classes and putting it into positive action to improve and strengthen our great republic.
It’s easy to look starry eyed at all that bears the words “civic education,” believing it is the cure to all of society’s shortcomings. But without the history, SEL, STEM, literature, and arts instruction needed to support it and absent the opportunities and direction to apply such learning into real action, additional civics education is a feel-good answer that does little to solving the complicated challenges we face.