The slogans of the January 6 insurrections who stormed the Capitol demonstrated much passion. But they had little understanding of how a democratic government works. Nor did they care to find out.
Foreign terrorists did not manipulate them. They earnestly believed as President Donald Trump told them that day and for weeks beforehand, that Congress was about to trample on their freedom and liberty. Most of them could have been your white neighbors.
Thomas Jefferson in a letter to a friend pointed out that the lack of an educated populace leads to the expectation that they can be both ignorant and free in a state of civilization and open to demagoguery. Jefferson wrote they expect “what never was and never will be.” That unrealistic expectation is at the crux of why our nation’s schools must teach civics so that as adults, they understand what is possible in a democracy and the principles that sustain it.
Schools are failing to graduate future citizens of a democracy
“Schools are failing at what the nation’s founders saw as education’s most basic purpose: preparing young people to be reflective citizens who would value liberty and democracy and resist the appeals of demagogues.” This was the conclusion reached by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey in their joint Century Foundation report released in 2011, “Putting Democracy Back into Public Education.” The foundation is a nonprofit public policy research institution supporting a mix of effective government, open democracy, and free markets.
An Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania survey taken in 2014 found that many citizens are unaware of how their government works. Only 36 percent of those surveyed could name all three branches of the U.S. government, and similarly, 35 percent could not name a single one. Four years later, their 2016 survey found that only 26 percent of Americans could name all three branches of government. Is this a rising tide of ignorance on how our government works? And at the same time, there is a wave of growing anger at the government not working.
Lacking knowledge not only makes our citizenry ineffective for making government accountable, but it leads to distrusting democracy altogether. Kahlenberg and Janey noted that a 2011 World Values Survey found that, “When asked whether democracy is a good or bad way to run a country, 17 percent said bad or very bad, up from 9 percent in the mid-1990s. Among those ages 16 to 24, about a quarter said democracy was bad or very bad, an increase of one-third from a decade and a half earlier.”
Without going into why so many young adults think democracy is bad, the fact that so many do suggest that our core democratic cultural values are slipping away.
Civics is about cultural values, not just elections
Damian Ruck’s December 2019 Nature research article, “The Cultural Foundations of Modern Democracies,” revealed that stable democracies tend to rest upon two cultural foundations: openness to diversity and civic confidence.” In other words, to survive, democracies must be “tolerant towards minority groups” and that “civic institutions, including government and the media, [must] command the confidence of the people.”
Teaching civics in schools should build confidence in a democratic government to be representative and tolerant of all citizens. However, civics could be selective in the historical information provided to students and thus as politically biased. Consider how former President Trump’s 1776 Commission and the New York Times’s 1619 Project have been viewed.
In September 2020, Trump announced he would establish a 1776 Commission to promote patriotic education. He wished to combat the “result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools.” The 1619 Project was cited as an example where “the Left has warped, distorted and defiled the American Story.”
On November 2, the day before the 2020 elections, Trump by executive order established his 1776 Commission. The day before the January 6 insurrection, the commission of 18 members met for the first time.
No professional historians were included. The commission chair was Larry Arnn, president of the private conservative college Hillsdale College and a founder of the far-right Claremont Institute. In the spring of 2020, the institute tweeted, “The notion that everything to the right of Communism is fascism remains a fixture in the minds of Communists and other radicals. Marxist ideology lets them do that.”
On January 18, 2021, two days before the end of Trump’s term and only thirty days after the commissioners were appointed, they released a 41-page “The 1776 Report.” It came without citations or footnotes and no identification of its primary authors.
The report promoted “Patriotic education.” Trump, and seemingly most of the commissioners, felt that schoolteachers who echoed the New York Times’ 1619 Project theme were attacking the country’s founders and principles of freedom and liberty. The Times said to the contrary, its 1619 Project’s aim was “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” The 1776 Report, reflecting Claremont Institute’s political orientation, saw the Project as an expression of progressivism which they considered an “ism” like fascism and Communism.
Nikole Hannah-Jones received the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary when she kicked off the 1619 Project with an essay headlined: Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.
Her article is a polemic on the evils of slavery buttressed by extensive historical data. That evil began with the 400,000 enslaved Africans sold into America before the international slave trade was abolished. Although they formed one-fifth of the young nation’s population, they were treated as property that “could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift and disposed of violently.” They built the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, they laid the foundations of the White House and the Capitol, and they made vast fortunes for white people North and South. They fought in every American war, with the first person to die fighting the British in the American Revolution being Crispus Attucks, a fugitive from slavery.
Teaching history is not the same as teaching civics, but the study of a nation’s government must address its development over time. America became a nation-based Thomas Jefferson’s idea that it was a self-evident truth that all men are created equal with certain unalienable rights, such as life and liberty.
Some scholars disagreed with how Hanna-Jones summarized the span of history covering the role of slavery in shaping this nation and found fault with some historical references. However, the criticisms of her essay were far fewer than the broadside that academics unloaded on the slapped-together 1776 report. Was it logical for Trump and his commission to consider Hanna-Jones unpatriotic? All she did was describe the inhumane conditions of the slaves’ lives, their positive contributions to everyone else’s welfare, and how some colonialists opposed British rule because losing slavery would hurt their businesses and the economy.
The conservative Heritage Foundation ran an article “The New York Times Begins Correcting the Historical Record on “1619.” They characterized the correction as evidence that the integrity of the 1619 Project was flawed. The correction was minor. It read: A passage has been adjusted to make clear that a desire to protect slavery was among the motivations of some of the colonists who fought the Revolutionary War, not among the motivations of all of them.
The 1776 Report and the 1619 Project represent a long-standing cultural division in this nation in determining a civics curriculum. Conservatives highlight the written principles of the American revolution and believe that emphasizing our nation’s dependence on slavery is a deliberate slight to honoring our civic heritage. Liberals insist that slavery created civic institutions and a culture that still divides our country along racial lines.
The challenge is to teach students how government functions and how democratic principles that are the foundation of our unique republic must guide government functions to administer justice fairly to all citizens. The current efforts at promoting civics education focus primarily on the mechanics of governing.
Civics education is fragmented and incomplete
According to The Center for American Progress, only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of U.S. government or civics. Thirty-one states only require a half-year of civics or U.S. government education, and ten states have no civics requirement. Since decisions are made by each state or school district, there is no required national coordination on fundamental principles or topics to be covered by civic classes.
The constitution leaves public school education in the hands of the states. Consequently, there is no federal jurisdiction to make civics a requirement or identify what the subject matter should be. Federal financial aid only amounts to 8% of the total cost to run the nation’s public schools, according to national data collected for the 2017-18 school year. The remainder of the funding is about evenly divided between educational districts and states. Most K-12 federal funding goes to the most economically vulnerable students through the National School Lunch Program and the Title I program. The money goes for social assistance, not educational programing.
To reach some standard measurement of civic education, 17 states require high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship exam before graduation. Unfortunately, the exam is heavy on dates and minutiae. It does nothing to measure comprehension of the principles underlying our republic.
Other states take more of a hands-on approach by allowing credit for community service, although almost none require it. Only Maryland and the District of Columbia require community service and civics courses for graduation. Surveys have shown that states with the highest rates of youth civic engagement tend to prioritize civics courses. Ten states with the highest youth volunteer rates have a civics course requirement for graduation.
Nonprofits have stepped up to expand the discussion to include the principles of seeking social justice as part of our heritage. One of the most significant collaborative efforts is an alliance of 36 nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations that formed the Civics Renewal Network, which grew out of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Their primary function is offering free online classroom resources for civics education, much of it available for teachers through the one-stop website www.civicsrenewalnetwork.org.
Another successful effort has been iCivics which offers free lesson plans, games, and interactive videogames for middle and high school educators. By 2015, the iCivics games had 72,000 teachers as registered users, and its games had been played 30 million times.
Sandra Day O’Connor, whom President Reagan appointed to the Supreme Court, left the iCivics organization as her legacy. Unlike many other efforts, iCivics is committed to unveiling the larger context around institutional racism, saying “that civic education must be transparent and explicit about racism if we want young people to engage civically as partners going forward.”
Teaching Civics Nationally Will Not be Easy
By far, the most ambitious plan underway to bring a reasoned approach to teaching civics is the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap. It is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education. The roadmap is not a national curriculum nor a set of instructional standards. Instead, it recommends approaches to learning civics.
The Educating for American Democracy initiative involves over 300 academics and educators. An executive committee of seven, including the executive director of iCivics, Louise Dubé, coordinate the effort. They have an ambitious plan to reach 60 million students by 2030 and provide them with access to high-quality civic learning opportunities. Over 100,000 schools have been designated as “civic ready” with a Civic Learning Plan and resources to support it.
This effort places civic lessons in the context of our country’s complex cultural history that championed liberty and freedom while still enslaving people for over 200 years. Changing culture is a thousand times more difficult than changing politicians and even governments. However, instead of preaching a singular view, this initiative encourages debate and exploring the need for compromise to make constitutional democracy work.
While this roadmap may serve as a template for teachers willing and able to teach civics, it is still a long way off from establishing any federal standards or recommendations for topics to be covered in civic classes. The last time that was tried, in 1994-1995, the Senate rejected the National History Standards proposed by the National Endowment for the Humanities/ U.S. Department of Education by a vote of 99 to 1.
In line with tradition, Trump said that the federal government should protect and preserve State and local control over their schools and curriculums. His administration opposed imposing a national curriculum or national standards in education.
But Trump went further by rejecting the Common Core curriculum, which state governors and school districts created, not the federal government. The curriculum specified what students should know at each grade level in the fields of math and reading. Since 2010, 41 of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia had adopted the curriculum. Although, as of 2015, five states had repealed Common Core, and additional state legislatures were repealing its use in their state.
States were encouraged to adopt the Common Core by the feds providing waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. However, that act was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, which prohibits the federal government from coercing States in any way from adopting the Common Core and any similar academic standards. Unless that law is amended or a new one passed, there will be no required national curriculum for teaching civics in public schools. Efforts to share a common civics standard will continue to be limited to nonprofits encouraging states and school districts to coordinate their efforts.
Improving our civics education is no easy task. Our country’s federal model delegates power to the states to control public education. The word “education” appears nowhere in our constitution. Within their boundaries, only states can mandate a civics curriculum. Teaching civics that promote democratic cultural values, such as tolerance and inclusivity, would have to be approved by state legislatures, many of which are currently limiting access to the ballot box.
Federal government democracies worldwide face a similar challenge, although all democracies need to teach civics. Charles Quigley, the Executive Director of the Center for Civic Education, summarized that need. “Democracy requires more than the writing of constitutions and the establishment of democratic institutions. Ultimately, for a democracy to work, it must lie in the hearts and minds of its citizens. Democracy needs a political culture that supports it.”
We need citizen-led organizations to work together to strengthen our political culture and to lobby state legislatures. Our founding principles must be aspirations and guide our daily lives in being more tolerant and respectful of others. Suppose we can couple those principles with providing knowledge on the nuts and bolts of how our democracy works. In that case, we should be able to avoid future insurrections based on Twitter-born conspiracy theories.