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January 04, 2022 HUMAN RIGHTS

Restoring Civility Will Take More than Civic Education

by Alexander Wohl

Citing a “disturbing spike” in attacks on teachers, school board members, and other officials, Attorney General Merrick Garland recently directed the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. attorneys’ offices across the country to meet with local officials to help respond to these threats.

The attacks, involving a range of subjects, including support for the wearing of masks to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, education about racial discrimination, and transgender students, offer painful examples of the increasing intolerance and fractured social and political divide in our country. They are, as the attorney general noted, not only illegal but “run counter to our nation’s core values.” 

What is particularly disheartening about these attacks is that many are focused on, or have occurred in, our public schools, spaces that should be a place to develop the building blocks of civic engagement while fostering skills needed to engage constructively with others who have different ideas, beliefs, or behaviors. Instead, schools have become the focus of ideological attacks by the far right, with a goal of undermining or reshaping public education itself. (Indeed, after Garland’s action, he subsequently was berated by Republicans in the U.S. Senate among others, further evidence of how our society’s culture wars have turned to the battlefield of education.)

Civic education has long been a critical vehicle for students to learn about our democracy and the principles of civil discourse and responsibility.

Civic education has long been a critical vehicle for students to learn about our democracy and the principles of civil discourse and responsibility.


Civic education has long been a critical vehicle for students to learn about our democracy and the principles of civil discourse and civic responsibility. Recently, in response to rising intolerance in the United States, including extremist actions like the January 6, 2020, siege of the U.S. Capitol, we’ve seen a renewed effort by some to add civic education to our public schools. The COVID-19 pandemic, and its enormous negative impact on students, has added fuel to this effort.

The pandemic forced Americans to adapt how we do things, from our personal interactions to whether and how we “go to” work to how we ensure our public and personal safety. Of those most affected by the months of imposed isolation were elementary and secondary students. Forced to engage in full-time virtual learning, students were restricted from any meaningful contact with their fellow students or teachers, and the impact on learning was profound.

Academic achievement dropped, students were disengaged, and many students disappeared from school entirely. Even more troubling, the greatest harm was suffered by the most vulnerable students in the most marginalized communities, including from lower-income groups, rural areas, minority populations, and students with disabilities. In short, the pandemic helped cause the cracks in our educational system to expand to chasms.

At least as significant as the academic cost has been the impact on children’s emotional and social well-being. Humans (with a few notable exceptions) are an inherently social species. We rely and thrive on our personal interactions. Those connections also teach us how to navigate relations and communicate effectively. These are particularly important skills for children, who are still developing their personalities, values, and modeling behaviors—all core elements of civic engagement.

The challenges imposed by the pandemic are just the latest chapter in the story of declining civic participation. Nearly 30 years ago, the political scientist Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, noted the growing isolation and lack of civic engagement across our society. The consequences, he suggested, could be seen in lower education rates, higher crime and drug abuse, and increased unemployment and poverty. More recently, other scholars have noted the potential harm from the social isolation caused by the creation of “civic deserts.”

These trends and behaviors have only been magnified with the growth of personal technology and social media and further exacerbated by the pandemic. Civic education would seem a natural antidote for many of these ills, as it can provide students with a variety of supports and training. For instance, it provides grounding in critical thinking and fact-based debate—core elements of a successful democracy. It trains students to challenge misinformation (and disinformation) and gives future adult citizens the tools to engage effectively and constructively with opposing viewpoints. Or, using the current terminology, it allows people to not be “canceled” or otherwise censored if they attempt to engage in a dialogue.

Civic education can also give students tools to confront bullies, both in school and in later life, including the practical, hands-on training to respond to personal attacks (and their underlying causes) with humility, compassion, and effective discourse. And of course, civic education can serve as a remedy for the general ignorance many have of how our government actually works. So, it’s not surprising that we’ve seen a renewed effort in recent years to expand the teaching of civic education in elementary and secondary schools.

According to a May 2021 Associated Press report, for instance, lawmakers in at least 34 states were debating 88 bills to bolster civics education for public school students, involving both in-school and extracurricular efforts. And a recent proposal by the German Marshall Fund called for the creation of a digital public sphere that would support a new civic infrastructure based on a wide range of digital platforms, involving journalists, local governments, nonprofits, libraries, and educational institutions.

There is no shortage of organizations that provide civics education curricula and other resources, including iCivics, the Center for Civic Education, Stanford University’s Civic Online Reasoning, the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and the Constitution Center, to name just a few. Most of these groups offer digital and online learning resources and opportunities to get curricula into the classroom, whether that classroom is operating virtually or in person. Long before the pandemic necessitated virtual learning, there was an awareness of the potential that could come from “creating online spaces where diverse students can convene and learn together,” as Justin Reich wrote in 2013, describing the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s Facing History and Ourselves project.

Unfortunately, the current renaissance in civic education faces a number of obstacles. To begin with, funding sources, particularly from the federal government, have been somewhat marginalized in recent years, as a 2018 report from the Brookings Institution noted, due in part to a shift in the focus to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning. This focus coincides with concerns many parents have about their children’s loss of learning during the pandemic.

Another problem is that students today are exhausted and jaded by online learning. Simply adding more online content won’t work. All learning, but civic education, in particular, benefits from in-person exchanges. An important aspect of developing communication skills comes from learning to interpret and respond to body language, facial expressions, and in-person conversation.

As Christopher Riano, the president of the Center for Civic Education, explained, one of the most important ways to learn civics is in real life, through everyday interactions. “The classroom forms just one piece of a much large puzzle for engaging with one’s community.” Virtual learning doesn’t always allow for that. In addition, the lack of an in-person authority figure, such as a teacher or facilitator, and the loss of familiarity a student may have with that person because they’ve only met online, can add learning challenges. But surely the biggest obstacle to civics education is also the most important reason for encouraging its use—the extremism and intolerance in our communities and classrooms today.

For civic education to effectively support increased understanding of our system of government, as well as the ability to communicate and debate within that system, trust and belief in the legitimacy of that system on the part of the audience is needed. It also requires mutual understanding about the facts to be used in discussing and debating questions. Unfortunately, that is not the attitude or approach taken by those who are perpetrating the most heinous attacks on our democracy. They neither accept the legitimacy of our government nor want to strengthen it; instead, they’d like to undermine or overthrow it.

“Engaging with a community about civics is an ongoing project that needs to be unifying,” notes Rianno of the Center for Civic Education. To this end, there still is some bipartisan support for civic education, as indicated by the recently introduced federal legislation to support civic education in schools, the Teaching Engaged Citizenship Act of 2021.

At the same time, however, even a subject as neutral as civics education is facing increased opposition by some conservatives, who have, for instance, tried to link civics education to critical race theory, which they assert is racist. A number of Republican-controlled state legislatures have even passed measures that would ban materials that discuss the racist roots of America’s founding, including the New York Times’s award-winning 1619 Project.

It would be a welcome irony if it turned out that some of the key causes of the current disruption of our democracy—the social media-inspired and coordinated attack on the U.S. Capitol and the COVID-19 pandemic—helped fortify an effort to stimulate greater civic education, understanding, and engagement.

Regrettably, however, the choices made by far too many Republicans to embrace rather than reject the attack on the Capitol and the lies (big and little) that have accompanied it, while seeking to control the curricula in our schools and use social media to spread disinformation, are helping to ensure just the opposite result—a disinterested, disengaged student body and an increasingly dysfunctional system of government.

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Alexander Wohl

Author, Father, Son, and Constitution: How Justice Tom Clark and Attorney General Ramsey Clark Shaped American Democracy

Alexander Wohl, a former Supreme Court judicial fellow, is the author of Father, Son, and Constitution: How Justice Tom Clark and Attorney General Ramsey Clark Shaped American Democracy.