Working as a social studies teacher for almost two decades, I have noticed a predictable and perennial pattern. A study is published showing some alarming deficit in the knowledge of people in the United States. Cue the calls for reform: “a return to the basics,” stricter standards, high school exit exams, more civics education. I enthusiastically endorse more civics, but it cannot be more of the same.
Too often, our curriculum teaches the Constitution as if it is a holy text (with the framers its prophets), that asks students to memorize what is legal more often than it asks them to grapple with what is just, and which privileges the mechanics of political institutions over the social movements that can transform them. It is a curriculum that tells students the meaning of citizenship rather than inviting them to be authors of its ongoing definition and redefinition. Not surprisingly, this is a civics education that can be standardized and tested, adding yet more millions into the corporate textbook and testing industries.
There can be no honest study of the U.S. political DNA absent the reprehensible strands in its helix. But there is no pristine moment—no uncontaminated DNA—to which we can return to escape the evil of the present. The civics we need more of provides students a clear-eyed understanding of U.S. founders and foundations, free of mythology and hagiography. It surfaces the lives and experiences of groups historically denied voice and power in U.S. politics: women, the enslaved, Indigenous Peoples, immigrants. It highlights activism—not just institutions or heroic individuals. It acknowledges that although our “political DNA” has never been worthy of a full, unqualified embrace, abolitionists, feminists, and labor organizers established a tradition of activism that is. It enjoins young people—and all of us—to act against injustice, providing historical and current examples of what that looks like. This is the civics I want more of and which I hope shows up in the classrooms of teachers across the nation.