This month, the country watched the first contested fight for the role of House speaker in a century. Kevin McCarthy’s 15-ballot bid concerned the nation’s third-ranking constitutional office, the balance of power in the Republican party, and whether decades of increasingly centralized power would be reversed in the House of Representatives.
This was an important fight. To make sense of it, one needed to understand Congress, the speakership, how the centralization of power and erosion of the committee system has changed the House, and more. The dispute offered a case study in principled opposition (Chip Roy’s fight to loosen the speaker’s hold on the House) vs. the performative antics of the Matt Gaetz faction.
Unfortunately, as a long-ago civics teacher, this all reminded me that these are precisely the kinds of topics that get shorted in civics education today—even by those committed to the subject.
As I’ve observed before, civics education today frequently seems less intent on teaching about political institutions, the virtues of checks and balances, and the importance of restraint than on encouraging and celebrating political engagement. Just last fall, a RAND survey found that K-12 teachers are more likely to think civics education should be about “promoting respect for and safeguard of the environment” than about “promoting knowledge of social, political, and civic institutions.”
Ironically, such “activism”-centered instruction winds up turning students into passive observers of the democratic process. If someone doesn’t know what the speaker does, how the House works, or what the stakes are, the entire clash just becomes a performative sideshow. Someone may vote or show up at a rally with a sign, but they don’t know how government works or how decisions get made. And this makes it tough to cut through all the social media and cable news hysterics to determine who’s behaving responsibly.
More fundamentally, fixating on activism misses the point of civics education. If the past half-dozen years have taught us anything, it should be that political participation alone doesn’t safeguard self-government or the health of the republic. Safeguarding democracy requires responsible behavior on the part of election officials and local officeholders in positions devoid of glamor. Responsible governance requires public officials to accept the legitimacy of elections and lawmaking even when they don’t like the result.
A healthy nation needs citizens who understand why all this matters, and the ways in which separation of powers, checks and balances, and protections for those with whom they disagree help make it easier for those on the losing side of an election or vote to live with the result. Yet, another RAND survey—this one of the nation’s social studies teachers—found that barely half thought it essential that students understand concepts like the separation of powers or checks and balances or even that students should learn to “be respectful of authority.”
The results aren’t hard to see. The University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center has reported that just 26 percent of Americans could name the three branches of government. The Institute for Citizens and Scholars has estimated that only 1 in 3 Americans could pass the nation’s Citizenship Test.
This is why the fixation on activism is short-sighted. In fact, cable news viewers who get whipped into a fury about the speaker’s fight without understanding the context, stakes, or consequences are arguably doing more to retard than advance healthful self-government. The same is true when students learn to make furious demands for instant action before they grasp the ways in which checks and balances or separation of powers have perhaps protected things they hold dear.
Students learning to pursue their civic passions is a good thing. I’m all for students learning to champion the causes or candidates they believe in. Fact is, though, this is also the easy part of civic education. Teaching students why the speaker fight mattered—and how to judge the stakes and claims for themselves—is the harder part of civic education. That’s the stuff which equips students to understand government and make it work differently, so that they’re not attending rallies, posting angry videos, and then lamenting that nothing ever changes.