A couple of years ago, I came across a truly shocking piece of data: young Americans were seeming to lose interest in a democratic system of government. According to the World Values Survey, only a third of young people thought it “absolutely essential” in a democracy that “civil rights protect people’s liberty.” More than a quarter claimed that free elections were unimportant. And over the last two decades, the number of Americans who think military rule is a good idea jumped from 6% to 16%.
It’s hard to imagine such ideas coming from young people just a few generations ago. What happened? When it comes to knowing how our system of government works and our role in it, our nation is sorely lacking in basic information.
In addition, the breakdown in civil discourse we see happening among adults in our country is happening among students as well. Schools are being affected by polarization, “fake news” and ignorance about what’s in the Constitution.
According to the FBI, school-related hate crimes jumped 25% in 2017 alone.
As anti-democratic sentiments rise, I wanted to find out what we could do to alter this dangerous trajectory. I interviewed scholars, parents, teachers, principals and experts, and they all agreed: the answer is civics education — which was, incidentally, the original mission of the public schools. But over the last 50 years, as reading, math and science test scores have taken center stage, civics has fallen off the map.
Yet at no time in recent memory does the need for civics education seem more urgent.
But what I learned was that today’s students — the most racially and culturally diverse, best-educated, most tech-savvy generation in American history — need a new kind of civics, one for the 21st-century kid.
The new civics should address not just the workings of government and the Constitution, but also a deep understanding of history and a young person’s place in it, media literacy to be able to identify “fake news” and credible information on the internet, and how to engage with government from the voting booth to the statehouse.
This is especially important for communities who have traditionally been marginalized and often feel like their voice or their vote doesn’t count.
I gathered all the evidence and wrote “Building Better Citizens,” about the “new” civics education revival happening across the country. In the book, I show how statehouses, educators and grassroots groups are working hard to bring back civics for a new generation.
Experts told me that a good civics education should begin early, weave throughout the curriculum and include the what of citizenship but also why participating in public life is so important.
Our democracy depends on us getting this right.
This piece first ran in a slightly different form here as a guest column in The Tennessean.