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May 05, 2023 Feature

How Civic Education Can Help Us Keep the Republic

By David E. Campbell

Democracy in America is under threat. This is not a partisan statement, as three-fifths of both Democrats and Republicans agree. Nor should we assume that because the worst fears about the 2022 midterm elections were not realized that the nation is out of the proverbial woods. The challenges that face America’s republican form of democracy transcend any one candidate, election, or event. While the most extreme anti-democratic voices get the most attention, there are also warning signs among the general public. A disturbingly large share of Americans express doubt about fundamental democratic norms. In the recent Notre Dame Health of Democracy Index, 20 percent of Americans said that not everyone should be allowed to vote. Thirty percent took the very Machiavellian position that the ends justify the means, by agreeing that they do not mind a “politician’s methods if they manage to get the right things done.” Even more alarming, nearly 40 percent agreed that “the United States is on the brink of a new civil war.” As Benjamin Franklin famously put it, the Constitution created a republic, “if we can keep it.” While long taken for granted, whether we can keep the republic is today an open question.

Volumes have been written about the causes of our current democracy deficit, but one common—and bipartisan—theme is a lament about the inadequate civic education of America’s young people. While it is easy to dismiss concern over civic education to the usual grumbling about “kids these days,” the connection between poor civic education and weak democratic norms is plausible. For example, over the past 20 years, average scores on the civics exam administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the “Nation’s Report Card”) have been below the level of proficiency. Perhaps we should not be surprised that civic education is seen as lacking, as civics is typically given short shrift when compared to math and reading. This is ironic, as every state has either a provision in its constitution or a statute that justifies the very existence of a public school system as necessary for the informed citizenry required by a republican government. Those state constitutions and statutes notwithstanding, civics is not included in the state-level accountability systems established by federal legislation, first No Child Left Behind and now Every Student Succeeds. Not surprisingly, when schools are incentivized to increase math and reading scores, other subjects—including civics—receive less attention. Over the same period of time that civics scores have been consistently low, average scores in math and reading have been much higher, even when accounting for the recent dip in test scores during the pandemic.

At a time when it is difficult to find common ground between conservatives and liberals on anything, it is remarkable that they would find consensus on the need for better instruction in civics. Granted, they may not always agree on the priorities for effective civic education, but the fact that both sides recognize the need for improvement is a start. Just as American education in math and science was reinvented after the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, civic education is experiencing its own Sputnik moment. Congress is currently considering the bipartisan Civics Secures Democracy Act, which would provide local schools with significant federal support for improved civic education while avoiding the minefield of imposing federal standards for civics. For the small group of scholars and educators who have long advocated for more attention to civic education (full disclosure: this includes me), it is tempting to use this moment to say, “I told you so.” This would not be very civic-minded, and so the civic education community has instead used this Sputnik moment to emphasize what works to educate young people to be active, informed members of a democratic community.

The first step to curing what ails civic education is to diagnose the problem. Understandably, attention is often directed toward low levels of knowledge about the nation’s system of government, and not only among youth. In 2022, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that over half of all Americans (53 percent), young and old, could not name the three branches of government; 25 percent could not name even one. Judges and attorneys might be concerned that only 46 percent of Americans know that the Supreme Court has the final word on whether a law is constitutional. I could go on with a nearly endless list of examples, but the point is made. When asked to recall factual knowledge about our system of government, Americans fare poorly—not just now, but for as long as such data have been collected.

While I do not dismiss the importance of accurate information in a democratic republic, I also submit that a low level of knowledge is not the root cause of the current threats facing American democracy. To be clear: I am not suggesting that we should be complacent about the lack of basic knowledge among voters. As an educator myself, I am in the business of disseminating knowledge and believe that we should strive for a more informed electorate. Rather, we should be wary of claims about the supposedly halcyon days of yore, as ignorance among the mass public is an age-old concern. Philosophers and social scientists alike have long noted that the citizenry seems uninformed. Something that does not change cannot be the cause of something that has changed—a constant cannot explain a variable. America’s democratic crisis is new; the low level of Americans’ knowledge about their system of government is not.

Given the maelstrom of misinformation that plagues our society, I can understand if readers are skeptical of my claim that a low level of knowledge is not the fundamental problem putting the republic at risk. Wouldn’t a more informed citizenry be less tempted by the siren songs of conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods? It is doubtful. The reason is that people’s willingness to believe false claims stems not from a dearth of knowledge but instead from how they perceive the information they receive. We all employ perceptual filters to make sense of the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of the world around us. When the Red Sox play the Yankees, what a Boston fan sees as a strike a New York fan will be equally convinced is a ball. In politics, partisanship—identification as either a Democrat or a Republican—provides just such a filter. As with examples of Americans’ political ignorance, examples of what is known as “motivated reasoning” are plentiful. Here is a recent one. When gas prices were high, Republicans around the country put stickers on gas pumps with a picture of President Joe Biden pointing toward the price and gleefully exclaiming, “I did that!” Meanwhile, Democrats argued that the president actually has little control over the price of gas. Now that fuel prices have fallen, I am unaware of Republicans again affixing stickers to give the president credit, while Democrats are no longer talking about a president’s inability to affect how much consumers pay at the pump. More seriously for the sake of American democracy, belief in conspiracy theories is not found only among people with little knowledge about government but is often predicted by a person’s strength of partisan identity. Importantly, even though conspiracy theories like QAnon and denial of the 2020 presidential election are associated with the political right, conspiratorial thinking is found across the political spectrum—witness the recent spike in antisemitism, which is found on both the left and the right.

Partisanship is also nothing new in American politics and thus cannot explain the democratic crisis. What has changed, however, is a rise in partisan polarization. In saying so, it is important to be clear on what the term actually means. “Polarization” is now the default way to describe contemporary American politics, although without much attention to how it is defined. Americans are not polarized in the sense that their political opinions are found at the extremes, either on the left or the right. To the contrary, on nearly any issue you can name, most Americans’ opinions are found in the moderate middle. If the majority of Americans are attitudinal centrists, why, then, is there so much political rancor? The answer is that a critical mass of Americans experiences what political scientists call “affective polarization,” which means that they have a negative, even hostile, view of the other party. They view people on the other side of the aisle not only as political opponents but also as enemies. There is a library of research demonstrating the many ways that Republicans and Democrats have hostility toward one another: They do not want their children to marry someone of the other party; they view supporters of the other party as less than human; and some endorse the use of violence to prevent the other side from assuming power, even after winning a lawful election. In each case, there are debates among scholars about how deep these feelings are—particularly on the subject of political violence—but the very fact that this is even something to debate only underscores the nation’s high state of political tension. Why is partisan animosity so high? A primary reason is that Democrats and Republicans increasingly live in separate worlds: They consume different news, watch different television shows, live in different communities, eat in different restaurants, and so on. It is easy to caricature people with different political views as unreasonable extremists when you do not know any. Getting to know people with opposing views may not convince you that they are right, but it may teach you that they are not cartoonish monsters, hellbent on destroying all that is good in the world. In other words, we don’t know how to talk with people of different views because we rarely try to do so.

Civics classes need to teach our young people a lesson many of their elders have forgotten: how to discuss your political views with people who do not necessarily agree with you. They need to learn that a democracy requires both advocacy for your own opinions and respect for those with perspectives different than yours. In the current political climate, political cross-talk has become increasingly rare. Even rarer are conversations between people of different political perspectives that are civil, deliberative, and for the purpose of seeking common ground. Classrooms are one of the last remaining settings where young people can be exposed to lived democracy—where a group of people comes together to wrestle with issues, hear competing points of view, and express their opinions respectfully.

Lest it seems that I am merely proposing that civics classes become unstructured rap sessions, let me emphasize that the research into civic education consistently finds that the most effective pedagogical method for teaching civics is what scholars call an open classroom climate. Rather than passively listening to the teacher’s lecture, watching videos, or filling out worksheets, students gain the most from a civics curriculum built around dynamic engagement. The best civic educators expose their students to real-world issues and give them the opportunity to discuss, debate, and reason with one another. In this model of civics instruction, teachers are both interlocutors and moderators, ensuring that the discussion stays on track, everyone works from a common set of facts, and the conversation remains civil. Classroom discussions are one important way this can happen, but so is experiential education such as mock trials, simulated congressional hearings (e.g., We The People), and model Congress. It is not hard to see why this method of instruction would be effective, as it brings the subject alive.

An open classroom climate teaches young people the skill of talking in a constructive way with people who hold different views and thus helps to tamp down the partisan animosity that is a root cause of our current democratic crisis. For those who might still be skeptical that this pedagogical approach lacks substance, the research literature also shows that an open classroom climate is the most effective method for imparting knowledge. That is, students who are taught civics in an open classroom climate score higher on evaluations of their factual knowledge about government. With greater knowledge also comes a greater desire to engage in the democratic process, specifically to vote. Furthermore, an open climate has the greatest benefit for young people with low socioeconomic status (SES). Sadly, we see the same socioeconomic test score gap in civics as in other subjects, which only compounds the skew in political participation toward affluent Americans. An open classroom climate serves as a counterbalance to the inequities in whose voices are heard in American politics, empowering low-SES students with more civic knowledge and a greater desire to participate in the fundamental democratic act of voting.

In short, an open classroom climate accomplishes multiple objectives at once. It addresses what I have argued is the root cause of our democratic crisis—the diminishing ability of political opponents to talk and reason with one another—while also increasing levels of factual knowledge and motivating young people to engage constructively in our democratic system of government.

In light of all that an open classroom climate can accomplish, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that nearly all (92 percent) high school students report having experienced some discussion of current affairs in their classrooms, while 69 percent say that they take part in debates or panel discussions. These survey questions do not reveal the quality of those discussions, but they at least indicate that, across the country, civics is not merely taught using passive pedagogy.

The bad news is that teachers increasingly feel pressure to avoid precisely the sort of discussion that is the most effective form of civic education. Many teachers have long felt wary of how parents will react when they engage in discussion of potentially controversial issues, but such concerns have only grown in the current political climate. According to a recent study by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Institute for Democracy Education, “almost half (45%) of principals reported that the amount of community level conflict during the 2021–22 school year was ‘more’ or ‘much more’ than what it had been prior to the pandemic”—with the most conflict in politically divided communities. Not surprisingly, another study by the RAND Corporation found that, in 2022, 40 percent of teachers reported that political issues caused them job-related stress. Nor is this merely paranoia on the part of teachers. Around the country, 17 states have passed laws or implemented executive orders from their governors to limit the topics that can be discussed in school, including race. While these laws have generated a lot of attention, especially during the past election campaign, it remains to be seen whether they will survive legal challenges. Currently, the best-known of these statutes, in Florida, is on hold due to a ruling by a federal judge that it violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Whether these laws are upheld or overturned, the sheer amount of attention paid to the issue of what is discussed in classrooms undoubtedly has a chilling effect on teachers. The irony is tragic. At precisely the time when we need civic education more than ever, there is a movement toward limiting, not expanding, discussion in the classroom and thus impeding the method of instruction most likely to teach the virtues that will keep the republic.

If I left the story here, it would seem that there is no hope for civic education. Either it languishes from a lack of attention or is stifled by too much attention, or at least attention of the wrong kind. Yet there is hope. Recently, a bipartisan, blue-ribbon team of educators and scholars (more disclosure: I played a small role) was tasked by the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a roadmap for teaching American history, government, and civics. This was an initiative under the Trump administration that, I stress, sought out perspectives and input from all over the country and across the political spectrum. The result is a curriculum guide for K–12 known as Educating for American Democracy (EAD). This is not a set of national standards for civic education but a practical guide for teachers. It has been designed, however, to calibrate with state-level standards. The brilliance of EAD is that it does not impose answers but rather poses questions, which become more challenging as students mature. For example, one of the questions for grades 3–5 includes “How can we express our disagreements and suggest change while maintaining our ability to work together?” In grades 9–12, the questions become more sophisticated, such as “What is reflective patriotism? How can we balance critical and constructive engagement with our society, our constitutionalism, and our history and still be proud to be Americans?” While not everyone will be satisfied with every question, EAD meets with broad approval from liberals and conservatives alike. Indeed, the very process of creating EAD was an exercise in finding common ground among people with differing perspectives.

Keeping our republic will not be easy. It will not happen without effective civic education. And effective civic education entails exposure to discussion, debate, and deliberation—learning how to hold a conversation with people who hold views different than your own. To that end, the Educating for American Democracy curriculum poses a series of questions, many of which are hard. But isn’t that where meaningful conversations start?

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    By David E. Campbell

    University of Notre Dame

    David E. Campbell is the Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame.