Civics Education Needs More Social-Emotional Learning, Less Existential Angst

I wonder whether the enthusiasm for civics instruction that emphasizes end-times pageantry is a symptom of our problems—and a recipe for aggravating them.
President Clinton addresses the National Education Summit in Palisades, N.Y., Wednesday March 27, 1996.
Threat to moral fabric?

In recent years, as polarization has torn at the nation’s social fabric, there’s been a surge in attention to civics education. As an old civics teacher (albeit from the last century), I think this is a wonderful thing. However, I think this energy can take more and less productive directions. I want to share a few words on that today.

In the Trump era, debates over gun control, climate change, immigration, gender issues, racial justice, and much else have fueled calls for schools to redouble their efforts to equip and encourage students to be active, engaged citizens. Engagement is a laudable goal, especially when educators are working to empower students without seeking to dictate their views or values.

But, as I’ve been barraged with communiques in recent months relating to Covid-19, this spring’s protests, and the need to “stop talking and start acting” on social justice, it’s struck me that there are at least two general philosophies at work. One is to embrace empathy, reflection, and persistence—what I tend to think of as core tenets of social and emotional learning. The other is to seek to immanentize the eschaton (or, as Belinda Carlisle once put it, to “make heaven a place on earth”).

Let’s start with the second of these. It seems that an existential angst has gripped the nation in recent years. Whether its Trump apologists averring in 2016 that the presidential contest was the “Flight 93 election” or Green New Dealers insisting that we’ve only got until 2030 to save the world, social media and public discourse are choked with the zealous assurance that we’re on the precipice of ruin. This has sparked the notion that students must be trained as shock troops for righteousness to snatch America back from the brink.

Of course, this presumes that America is on the brink. And I get it. Believe me. Looking across the land, I think many people find it hard not to fret about the fate of our kids, communities, and country. Our polarization is staggering and disheartening. Social media has proven an astonishingly potent source of poison and propaganda. It can seem like our ability to talk across divides or find compromise has evaporated, and every day brings a new outrage. Oh, and the institutions designed to check all of this are creaking under the strain.

And, yet, the older I get, the more I feel like this isn’t as new as it seems. In any given moment, if one is paying attention, the world can feel like it’s on the verge of coming apart. I remember, as a kid in 1980, listening to hushed conversations about how a Reagan victory would launch a terrifying assault on the Constitution (he won, but the Constitution is still there). I remember millions marching for the nuclear-freeze movement in the 1980s, insisting that we were mere moments from nuclear armageddon (the nukes are still there, but the protesters moved on). I remember the Republicans thundering in 1998 that Bill Clinton was a threat to the nation’s moral fabric, the national pandemonium of the Bush-Gore election in 2000, the terror that followed 9/11 in 2001, and the fear that we were sliding into a second Great Depression in 2008 (the nation survived all of it).

As grim as things are today, with presidential malfeasance and urban rioting, those old enough can recall when things were as bad—or worse—a half-century ago. And, while police misconduct, racial disparities in education and economic outcomes, and much else are real issues, I suspect those who insist there’s been no improvement over time would feel differently after a week spent in 1960 or 1970.

In fact, I wonder whether the enthusiasm for civics instruction that emphasizes end-times pageantry is a symptom of our problems—and a recipe for aggravating them. After all, the genius of the American system is that, even with all its manifest flaws, it has been an astonishing engine of self-betterment over the centuries. Today, I worry whether the social-media-addled, 24-hour news cycle dominated, micro-targeted world of distrust and constant fundraising has left us ill-equipped to engage in the dialogue, compromise, or bridge-building that it takes to make our pluralist system work.

The impulse to equip students to storm the barricades and make a difference is surely a healthy one. But we need to be sure that we’re also asking what it will take to produce more citizens, community leaders, and public officials who argue respectfully, forge bonds of trust, build new institutions, and find ways to revitalize and repair what seems to be broken.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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