Where Left and Right Agree on Civics Education, and Where They Don’t
“One participant told the story of a high school teacher enthusiastically hosting a debate on abortion on the second day of the school year.”
An Introductory Note
Frederick M. Hess
As someone who once (a long, long time ago) taught high school civics, and has taught and studied education in the decades since, I’ve always found civics education to be especially personal. When I taught, my 10th grade civics class often felt like an afterthought amidst the larger East Baton Rouge curriculum, with its decade-old textbook and state standards that seemed heavy on platitudes and trivia. I struggled (with uneven success) to devise lesson plans that would engage students and enliven key concepts. My first book, Bringing the Social Sciences Alive, emerged from that work.
Thus, I’ve found heartening the surge of interest in civics education that we’ve seen in the past few years—from the National Endowment for the Humanities, major funders, universities, media outlets, and advocates. At the same time, I fear this newfound enthusiasm is at risk of being undone by ideological tensions that fester as well-meaning advocates try to paper them over while talking in aspirational generalities about shared values, civic engagement, and informed voters. The challenge is translating this into real schools and classrooms. That’s where submerged disagreements suddenly reemerge, provoking cultural clashes that swamp nuanced discussions of curricula and instruction.
It’s with an eye to understanding and better anticipating these kinds of tensions that I host a regular series of bipartisan symposia at the American Enterprise Institute. We regularly gather influential officials, analysts, and advocates from across the ideological spectrum to engage in a structured series of hard-hitting, intimate conversations about just these sorts of questions. A recent series of these conversations on the topic of civics education yielded the observations and reflections that follow.
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As America confronts the coronavirus pandemic, one thing is clear: an effective response to the virus will depend on communal sacrifice and cooperation—in other words, on civil society. Yet, in a time of hyperpolarization and public distrust in government, questions about the strength of our civil society—and the schools charged with cultivating it—loom larger than ever.
There is widespread concern about the state of civics education—and for good reason. A 2018 survey by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that just 26 percent of Americans could name the three branches of government. That same year, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation concluded that only 1 in 3 Americans could pass the nation’s Citizenship Test.
Despite the dismal figures and emphatic declarations that we need dramatic improvements to civics education, there is little agreement on what change is needed or what that will require. The convenings on civics education that do take place tend to feature like-minded educators and advocates or “mission-aligned” groups of funders and grantees. While such gatherings have their virtues, the recent history of education reform makes clear that they can also foster groupthink and create blind spots. In an attempt to better understand where there’s substantive common ground, make sense of principled disagreements, and more clearly see the opportunities and challenges ahead, we hosted a series of conversations with a remarkable cross-section of leaders from education policy and practice.
The conversations were off-the-record to enable participants to speak freely. Represented in the room were the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations; the two major teachers unions; academia; educators; district leaders; and left- and right-leaning advocacy groups and think tanks. The organizing question was straightforward: What do we mean by “civics education,” anyway? And, more specifically, what does it mean for schools, teachers, and students? The exercise ultimately offered a roadmap of where there is consensus, where potential agreement is obscured by distrust or confusion, and where there are fundamental differences.
Is there a common set of “American values” that school can (or should) cultivate? While participants across the spectrum agreed that there are values to which all Americans should aspire, those on the left and right were divided over whether a “common” set of values could be fully identified and so universally accepted as to warrant a place in civics education.
Conservatives maintained that schools should teach all students values like equality and justice. Students, in this view, should also learn to appreciate the constitutional machinery—separation of powers, federalism, an independent judiciary, checks and balances, the Bill of Rights—that helps secure our liberty and allows us to manage our disagreements peacefully. Civics education, they insisted, should unabashedly instruct students to value the institutions and norms that undergird our freedoms. At the same time, conservatives took pains to acknowledge that constantly working to improve those institutions and norms is foundational to the American project. Thus, they agreed that it’s important to teach America’s failings, but also how leaders from Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr. tapped into those values to right wrongs, expand liberty, and promote equality. Failing to do this, conservatives argued, would leave students rudderless.
Those on the left were less comfortable with this sweeping notion of a common set of “American values” for the classroom. While several acknowledged that there are fundamental values that all should aspire to, most took issue with the idea that one could codify “American values.” In response to a conservative suggesting that schools should teach “respect for the law,” for instance, one left-leaning participant observed that slavery was once the “law of the land,” contending that even commitment to law should be regarded as less than absolute. Others challenged conservatives’ assertions that “patriotism” and the “wisdom of the Founders” should be taught, arguing that such notions have political connotations and should not be blithely regarded as “shared values.” Rather than urging students to embrace particular values, those on the left were more inclined to suggest that schools should equip students to be agents of change.
One fundamental point of commonality was that “American values” are aspirational—something for students to pursue against a backdrop of imperfection. At the same time, both groups had significant concerns about what those aspirational values mean in practice. Those on the left worried that too many want to talk about history in a triumphal sense, while those on the right saw too little appreciation for American progress or accomplishments. How to find the middle ground between these perspectives is an open question.
How should schools approach America’s “original sins”? For many reasons, schools have historically done a poor job of teaching students about America’s failings when it comes to slavery, racism, and discrimination. That much was a point of ready agreement. There was less agreement about the way forward, however.
In diagnosing the issue, participants pointed to a myriad of factors: While some chalked it up to a lack of will to face the past, others (practitioners in particular) suggested that teachers omit difficult subjects from their curriculum because they feel ill-equipped to teach them or because they fear the ire of parents, school leaders, or school board members. Still others hypothesized that in-depth study of topics like slavery or the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans are rare because civics and history education often play second or third fiddle to math and reading, and, consequently teachers feel they don’t have the time or freedom to cover these difficult subjects in a responsible manner. While the diagnoses varied, there was bipartisan agreement that America’s sins have been given short-shrift in too many classrooms.
It was in this context that the topic of the New York Times’s 1619 Project arose. Many on the left endorsed efforts like this New York Times project—a massive assemblage of essays, curricular materials, and supplemental resources that argue the U.S. was founded as a “slavocracy” and that trace the birth of America to the arrival of a slave ship in 1619 rather than to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Those who embraced this work depicted it as a much-needed correction to the dominant narrative of American history as it’s taught in most classrooms. Several participants on the right countered that the 1619 Project is an ideological, agenda-driven over-correction that presents a distorted, disempowering, and factually inaccurate view of the nation’s history. Conservatives worried about the possibility of it being adopted by schools and districts as a new conventional wisdom. While never articulated quite this way, there was clearly a tension between some on the left who saw slavery and racism as defining elements of the American creed, and those on the right who saw them as a betrayal of that creed.
Right and left did agree that efforts like the 1619 Project have a valuable role to play when they are enriching the narrative. The disagreement emerged when it came to conservative concerns that the larger goal is to supplant—rather than supplement—current curriculum. Ultimately, both sides agreed that there is a need to balance instruction regarding America’s moral failings and virtues, though how to judge the appropriate balance was a subject of energetic dispute.
To what extent should students be “doing” civics and not just “learning” civics? All participants accepted the premise that students need a foundational knowledge of our government and democratic institutions. More controversial was the question of whether civic knowledge should be coupled with an emphasis on civic action—i.e. “doing” civics. That discussion tended to break along the ideological divide, with those on the left voicing their support of “action civics” and those on the right raising concerns about the nature of action civics and what knowledge might get sacrificed in the name of active learning.
To supporters of action civics, the case for it was straightforward. As one left-leaning participant pointed out, many students learn better by doing: in math, students don’t simply learn about the concept of multiplication, they do multiplication. In science, students put their knowledge to practice in the lab. Similarly, if the goal of civics education is to cultivate productively engaged citizens, teachers should encourage students to “do civics” rather than simply reading about it. That means that activities like participating in marches or writing to members of congress are part and parcel of learning how civics works and preparing to be a responsible citizen.
Skeptics of action civics, all on the right, supported the goal of helping students become active citizens but expressed significant concerns about the approach. First, conservatives argued that “action civics” seems to lean decidedly left, with activities and emphases that consistently favor progressive causes rather than conservative ones. They suggested that this makes it more akin to indoctrination than instruction. Second, conservatives worried that more time on “action civics” would almost inevitably come at the expense of teaching civic knowledge—a serious issue in a nation where too few understand the basics of how our government works. (Proponents conceded that less time would be spent covering content, but argued that students would learn the important material more deeply and lastingly.) Third, many of the skeptics felt that allowing students to miss class time to protest or advocate would be an abdication of the school’s responsibility to educate, and that doing so would raise thorny questions about which advocacy causes schools and administrators would be deem “acceptable” and “appropriate.” Given that a number of school districts have waived attendance requirements for students participating in some high-profile, generally progressive, demonstrations, conservatives wondered whether schools would support students who desire to attend the “March for Life” as ardently as they supported students who attended the “March for Our Lives” against gun violence or the 2019 Climate Strike. “Action civics,” to the skeptics, seems to consistently involve efforts to proselytize for progressive causes.
The issue with “action civics” is not with the idea in principle, but primarily with conservative distrust of the underlying motivation. Finding a way to bridge that gap, in a nation marked by a high degree of partisan mistrust and polarization, will be no easy task.
Should schools teach “patriotism”? Not so long ago, simply asking this question would have prompted surprised looks. The answer would have been, “Of course.” Today, things are much murkier. The term “patriotism,” once innocuous, is now ideologically charged. The idea of teaching patriotism has become controversial, supported by the right (See “History, Critical and Patriotic,” in the Spring 2020 Education Next) and greeted with skepticism on the left. Both sides ultimately suggested that finding middle ground would require thinking about patriotism as something more complicated than “love of country.”
For those on the right, patriotism was a question of appreciating the sacrifices that have afforded Americans comfort and freedom and of all the things that unite us. In their view, patriotism is the foundation for civic instruction. On the left, “teaching patriotism” was seen as jingoistic and an excuse to downplay America’s failings. Referencing the current political climate, those on the left also saw “patriotism” as a term freighted with partisan meaning, tinged with xenophobia, and invoked by Republicans as a partisan rhetorical device. Indeed, some of the progressive participants argued that asking immigrant or minority students to be patriotic is immoral—that America needs to be worthy of patriotism before schools should teach it.
There were some intriguing efforts to devise middle ground on this score. On the right, one teacher acknowledged that because “patriotism” is such a loaded term, he prefers to talk about teaching students to be “invested” in their communities. He reasoned that patriotism is less important a goal than “stitching children into the public sphere,” thereby cultivating a sense of gratitude for our system of democracy and teaching student to appreciate our institutions without necessarily insisting on the kind of emotional attachment often implied by patriotism.
On the left, a participant suggested the much of the controversy surrounding patriotism could be sidestepped by distinguishing between patriotism and nationalism. He argued that American-style patriotism should be about loving the nation’s foundational values more than the nation itself. Translating that into practice, he argued teachers can teach students to love the ideals of America without insisting on a love of nation. After all, he observed, “teaching kids to love their country” is something that China or North Korea do—American “love of country” is something that should arise organically. Whether such approaches can help overcome the divide is an open question, but they open an opportunity worth exploring.
What civics knowledge is essential? And is there a place for “current events”? While all acknowledged the importance of learning civics knowledge, conservatives and liberals disagreed about what knowledge warrants a place in civics curricula and how to teach about current events.
While the ideological lines were not hard and fast on this one, those on the left were more skeptical about the importance of students knowing the size of the U.S. House of Representatives or the contents of Federalist 10. They were more concerned with students knowing how jury selection works. More fundamentally, especially when discussing the 1619 Project, it was repeatedly observed that, when it comes to American history, there’s not agreement on “a common set of facts” or about how to interpret and explain those facts.
Participants also disagreed about the place of current events in civics curricula. One conservative participant expressed concern that civics education can turn into “demagoguery” when teachers are given free rein to wade into current events. Most conservative participants expressed the sense that such activities overwhelmingly involve introducing progressive dogma on hot-button debates regarding issues like immigration, affirmative action, or gender identity. Those on the left saw that suspicion as unfair and unfounded. One left-leaning participant flatly rejected this characterization, stating that most teachers are skilled at presenting current issues in a balanced manner. Another participant, a scholar, rejected both views, arguing that the real issue isn’t that teachers are presenting topics in a skewed manner but that most don’t tackle these issues at all. A civics educator argued that civics education is really a “black box” and that we just don’t know what’s happening inside civics classrooms. Though there may be schools where conservative teachers foist their views on students, that concern was never raised by the room’s progressive wing.
There was consensus that there are some hot-button issues that should only be tackled with thoughtful context and preparation. For instance, one participant told the story of a high school teacher enthusiastically hosting a debate on abortion on the second day of the school year. There was widespread agreement that that seemed irresponsible. The questions of how to determine which issues belong in this category and how to prepare teachers to teach these issues well are big ones, and ones to which no one had good answers.
In trying to synthesize what was said, we’re left with at least three thoughts.
One is that there is widespread agreement on many—but not all—of the goals of civics education but little agreement on how to get there. We all want students to embrace ideals of liberty and equality, to know how American government works, and to be invested in making their nation a better place. We are less decided on whether to cultivate patriotism, how much content students need to learn, whether schools are honest brokers when it comes to sensitive questions of history or ideology, and what it means to teach students about liberty and equality. Unfortunately, even for those goals we do agree about, there is sharp disagreement, frequently along ideological lines, on how to achieve them.
Second, a polarized age has yielded stark divides in how Americans think about the challenge of educating students to be responsible citizens. Many on the left suggest that alienation, anomie, and ignorance have corrupted the political discourse—and that the presidency of Donald Trump is one result. Conservatives, on the other hand, see many of our current woes as a divisive product of the left’s grievance-fueled disdain for America’s virtues. These competing perspectives mean that facile talk of bipartisan “support” for civics education can mask very different agendas.
Third, a constant refrain in our conversations was the need for students to spend more time on civics education. It was suggested that the broader curriculum needs to take civic values seriously. That was certainly true of history and social studies, but the consensus was that this needed to hold for the whole of the curriculum as well as for non-classroom activities. The problem: It’s far from clear what people wanted to see done with that time. Participants did agree that civics instruction goes far beyond what’s taught in the formal civics curriculum, raising questions about how effectively relevant skills and knowledge are taught across curricula, and what’s needed to help teachers do better. On the relevant questions of content, pedagogy, values, and much else, there were important differences that were occasionally bridged but never resolved.
Civics education is a crucial responsibility in a free nation. Self-government is a complicated, challenging task, one that requires skills and will on the part of its citizens. Seeking to do better will inevitably run afoul of many real, unavoidable sensitivities. It would be a mistake to deny that reality or seek to paper it over. Tackling civic education will require educators, advocates, policymakers, and parents to practice the very virtues we want to teach our children. It will be difficult, but the civil and constructive tone of our conversations—even as they grew heated and emotional—leaves us confident that we are more than up to the task.
Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an executive editor of Education Next. Matthew Rice is a research assistant in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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