Two big questions loomed over a bipartisan national summit on civics education held in Washington this past week: how can we improve the civic literacy of students, and how can we instill a deep love of democratic constitutional values? Illiteracy about the basics of our system of government has been a longstanding problem—for instance, only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, according to a recent Annenberg poll. But what’s new is an alarming decline in the belief in democracy, as the proportion of young people who believe democracy is a “bad” or “very bad” system of government has risen sharply in recent years from 16 percent to 24 percent of the population.
The summit, which was the brainchild of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and featured sitting justice Sonia Sotomayor, was aptly entitled “Democracy at a Crossroads.” The backdrop was the stunning willingness of American voters to elect a president who repeatedly challenged longstanding democratic norms—prompting what Clifford Janey and one of the present authors called “a Sputnik moment for civics education.”
During the campaign and his young presidency, Donald Trump famously challenged freedom of religion (proposing a Muslim immigrant ban), attacked freedom of the press (labeling journalists “enemies of the people”), and spoke admiringly of a series of autocratic leaders. Violence is increasingly thought of as an appropriate response to undesirable speech on college campuses: in a recent poll, Brookings scholar John Villasenor found that one in five undergraduates now say it is acceptable to use physical violence to silence a speaker who makes “offensive and hurtful statements.”
Most of the conference addressed the question of how to improve civic literacy, and there were spirited debates about whether it was more important to emphasize knowledge of our system of government (its structure, its founding documents, etc.) or to build civic skills with hands-on work. (The consensus: Why not do both?)
But there was much less direct discussion of the more vexing issue: how to instill a love of democratic constitutional values, including those enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Teaching democratic values is trickier than teaching knowledge and skills in part because educators are trained that they should teach children “how” to think, not “what” to think. Indeed, there is an inherent tension between promoting freedom of thought and telling students that democratic constitutional norms are the right beliefs to hold.
How do we navigate this difficult territory? In the session with Justice Sotomayor, we asked: how can we instill an appreciation for the democratic values outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?
Sotomayor suggested that the root of the problem—the explanation for why a quarter of young Americans dismiss democracy—is “ignorance,” a lack of understanding of what democracy is. If students are taught about our system of government, it will become self-evident to them that our constitutional democracy is better than nondemocratic forms of government.
Sotomayor suggested that the root of the problem—the explanation for why a quarter of young Americans dismiss democracy—is “ignorance,” a lack of understanding of what democracy is.
That approach seems basically correct to us, but only if civics is taught effectively. And to teach civics effectively, we need to think more deeply about why a quarter of Americans are so poorly disposed to democracy. Here are the responses that we think are necessary for correcting that growing disposition:
- Teach about nondemocratic societies. It might be, in part, that a quarter of students don’t like democracy because they have never really learned what it is like in a nondemocratic society. Children must be exposed to how people live in societies where the public has no say in how leaders are chosen and where citizens are thrown in jail when they criticize the government.
- Teach American history in a way that outlines our serious flaws but also highlights what has been called “the genius of democracy:” its capacity for self-correction. A whitewashed history that glosses over America’s enduring sins is inaccurate and not credible. On the other hand, an unrelenting indictment of American history which dwells on its sins alone is also inaccurate and could yield to nihilism. What’s needed is an historical account which retells, unblinkingly, the tragedies of slavery, segregation, and the mistreatment of women and other marginalized groups but also discuss the movements to abolish slavery, to gain women’s suffrage, to establish worker safety, and to promote civil rights.
- Reprioritize civics in testing and outcomes goals. At the summit, Harvard University’s Danielle Allen noted that the strong emphasis on STEM fields in recent years is associated with a decline in civic knowledge. Former Secretary of Education and current EdTrust CEO John B. King Jr. then observed that testing in math and reading has led to a dilution of civics, though Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation noted that if reading tests emphasized civics passages, civics content would surely become more salient in the curriculum.
- Ensure that schools model democratic values. It might be that young people see education institutions as deeply hypocritical: preaching the virtues of constitutional democracy but not in fact operating in a manner consistent with those values. Schools are, in most cases, children’s first sustained interaction with civic institutions. But despite this critical reality, schools as civic institutions are not always democratic ones. Teachers—particularly teachers of color—express declining satisfaction with the degree of classroom autonomy and influence that they have within their schools. Inequitably applied exclusionary discipline practices too often signal to students that critical expression is unimportant and unacceptable. Literature courses that either fail to reflect the lived experiences of students, or fail to expose them to different perspectives, reinforce that only certain voices and viewpoints will be heard. Persistent racial and socioeconomic segregation between and within schools demonstrate to students that Americans have exercised complacency in response to injustice. In short, it is fruitless to hope that students in American schools will come to love and understand democracy while we simultaneously fail to structure those same schools in ways that ensure that multiple perspectives and voices are regarded and respected.
- Amplify the voices, and increase the influence, of students, teachers, and students’ communities. Some schools and districts are working to combat the lack of student voice. Herminia Sanchez, a high school junior in Chicago’s public schools, spoke at the summit about a student council at her school that gives students the opportunity to comment on and change school policies that they feel are harmful to their learning environment. Sanchez sees the advocacy skills that she is learning in school as critical to affecting wider community-level change, saying that her work at school has given her the confidence and skills to uplift the needs and desires of her primarily Mexican immigrant community. Likewise, in districts like Rochester, New York, Superintendent Cliff Janey worked with teachers to enhance their existing peer-review model that gives teachers a stronger say in how they are evaluated and terminated.
- Finish the work of desegregation. Former Secretary King and Justice Sotomayor lamented the current levels of racial and socioeconomic segregation in our schools, underscoring the harm that such separation can pose to the development of empathy and the ability to converse productively. Fortunately, more than 100 districts and charter networks are taking active steps to voluntarily desegregate their schools. This work should expand, accompanied by reforms to ensure that inequity of opportunities and access do not recreate themselves within school buildings and classrooms.
- Discontinue discriminatory discipline practices. In a powerful moment during the summit, a black high school student from an intensely segregated D.C. public school expressed that many of her peers fear expressing dissent or questioning authority due to the threat of suspension or sanction. Research shows that minority students are several times more likely to be suspended, restrained, disciplined, and referred to law enforcement than are their white peers. Experts say that a majority of these sanctions aren’t for concrete, safety-related infractions such as fighting or bringing a weapon to school, but for subjective behaviors such as “defiance.” It follows that students who feel silenced and scared in school not only aren’t prepared to assert their voices in a civic society, but might grow to value compliance over democracy. Oakland schools have implemented some promising practices in this area by training teachers to recognize signs of student trauma and implementing a greater number of disciplinary procedures that are restorative, rather than punitive, in nature.
Thursday’s summit highlighted some exciting advances in civics education, particularly in Florida and Illinois, where bipartisan coalitions of legislators worked to prioritize the teaching of civics. In Florida, the state passed legislation in 2010 to require students take and pass a middle school civics course; and in Illinois, a 2015 piece of legislation required high school students to complete a civics course that includes not only knowledge of government but also service learning. Those efforts are a critical first step, but in order to restore full civic literacy—and to encourage students to believe deeply in constitutional democratic values—adults need to do a much better job not only of teaching democracy, but of modeling it in schools as well.