The state of American civics education has lately become a frequently lamented shortcoming. A brigade of facts and figures have been mobilized to underscore this failure in our public education: among these, that more Americans know members of the Simpsons family than the freedoms granted by the First Amendment; that 10% of college graduates believed that Judith Sheindlin (stage name: Judge Judy) was a member of the Supreme Court; that only one-quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government; or that national scores on civics tests have not budged in over two decades. Yet professional surveys are not needed to understand this issue: many Americans will be quick to acknowledge their disinterest in (and lack of knowledge about) politics and the issues of the day. Take my good friend--a Ph.D. student, no less--who recently confessed to me she does not know what the Supreme Court is.
It is hardly news to most that Americans don’t receive the civics education that they should; yet other school subjects continue to eat up larger shares of instruction time, often at the expense of civics and government classes. Given this present landscape, investing in civics education that will not only impart basic knowledge but motivate students to take an active role in their communities. This can, of course, be done by governments, but also by individuals and organizations striving to prioritize civics and ensure it is taught in a constructive way.
A traditional civics education can sometimes feel more like history, with emphasis on rote memorization of dates and facts. Taught with a particular emphasis on the 18th century, this method can make the government seem as ancient and crusty as the parchment on which it was outlined. This, compounded by the fact that the “Founding Fathers” resemble the average American childless and less with every passing day, provides a strong incentive for many students to mentally check out. Many pupils simply cannot relate to the founding generation, understood to be a select group of white men who's America hardly bears any resemblance to the nation we currently inhabit.
This is not to argue that we ought not to learn the basics of our system and how it came into being--as a lover of history, I think it is hugely important--but rather that we must inject a sense of immediacy into how civics is taught. Students must engage with civics in a way that shows them that people of all stripes have taken part in shaping and reshaping our body politic since its very beginnings. In fact, some of the founding generation believed it was not for past generations to unilaterally dictate to later ones: Thomas Jefferson argued that “the earth belongs...to the living.” It is incumbent on every generation to strive to diagnose the system in which they live, and muster the consensus necessary to make changes. The ability to do this rests largely on whether or not students understand the world around them, how it came into being, and the active role they can play in it, whether they aspire to be President or an electrical engineer.
An informed citizenry can also create a sense of shared community and solidarity, a factor that can promote further altruism and reinvestment in education. This virtuous cycle highlights the benefits of teaching students the importance of participating in civil society--in order not only to uphold it, but to have the wisdom and wherewithal to improve it when a situation demands.
How to get involved
Fortunately, many state governments are overhauling their civics programs, but there remains much to be done. This is where a multitude of organizations--museums, nonprofits, think tanks--can help fill in the gaps. The Civics Renewal Network, a consortium of civics-minded groups, helps provide information and resources to students, scholars, and teachers alike. Aside from giving directly to these programs, even using and sharing their resources helps to promote their work in particular and civics in general. Contacting representatives and demanding they prioritize a civics taught in productive, objective, and informative ways is another option.
It will require a combination of public and private actors to reassert the vitality of civics and encourage the robust activism and collective thinking needed to confront the problems of tomorrow. Only in this way can we begin to work towards a just, equal, and altruistic world to one day bequeath to future generations.
About the Author
Overwhelming odds are, Sebastian van Bastelaer is currently either devouring a book on obscure 18th-century history or watching a college basketball game from at least five years ago. He has worked in government and the nonprofit sector, published academic articles in a variety of publications, and dabbled as a traveling sportswriter.
He will never rest until everyone on Earth knows that 1) The U.S. Constitution doesn’t say what you think it does and 2) French fries are Belgian, not French. (But mostly that second one.)