The Case for Civic Education

Hello everyone! Hope you all enjoyed your holidays. I, for one, enjoyed my semi-annual “quiet period.”

Yesterday I attended an interesting event at the Brookings Institute. Spurred by the publishing of “Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education,” several of the contributing authors came together to discuss the state and future of civics, government and U.S. history in K-12 and higher education. I was excited to see the event announced – I have a special interest in the topic.

I hate talking about politics. It’s gotten so bad in recent years that I find myself avoiding the news – even that haven for young news avoiders, the John Stewart Show. The hyperbole, the unwillingness to have civil discussions, the media screaming – it’s enough to make me want to hide under a table. Incredibly, it’s a problem should a politician ever have the audacity to change a position (or their minds) about an issue. Of course they do – and blithely pretend that they’d always thought that way!

But this avoidance is not a good thing. And I am the first to admit that I take many political conversations too personally. I remove myself rather than face challenging conversations. I am part of the problem! So I approached the panel with two goals – to hear from some experts how #EDU may hold answers to resolving the problem and to gain insight into how I might personally work toward being more civically engaged.

The panel included John Bridgeland, author and recently appointee to President Obama’s White House Council for Community Solutions (he also served as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under George W. Bush) and David Feith, Chairman of Civic Education Initiative. The panel was moderated by William Galston of the Brookings Institute.

In addition to some grave statistics about the lack of civics, government and history knowledge among both kids and adults, two key themes were touched on again and again: First, the current state of politics is marked by an unwillingness – and perhaps an inability – of government leaders to work together to solve problems. Secondly, the lack of knowledge in (and, more importantly, the lack of disposition to learn) civics is rampant, with no clear action plan to resolve.

The focus of the discussion was broad enough that specific #EDU action items are rare in my notes. But there are some good nuggets to share.

I’ll start by sharing a great #EDU memory from Mr. Bridgeland’s keynote. He recalls being asked to play the part of a lawyer for Dred Scott in school. He had to prepare a case and present it to the class. He still recalls everything about the experience…in the end, he won the case, winning for Dred Scott where history had failed him. This awakened an interest in government for him that was never extinguished.

Repeatedly, each panelist brought up the need for enthusiastic and passionate teachers in the subject. Adm. Michael Ratliff, President of the Jack Miller Center discussed his higher education-focused summer institutes where professors (perhaps focused on research) can re-awaken the passion that brought them to the study of civics.

I have to say that I sat up and paid attention when Seth Andrew, Founder and Superintendent of Democracy Prep Public Schools (absolutely the most passionate member of the panel) offered harsh criticism of K-12 education. Sounding a wake-up call that today’s civil rights issue is fixing our schools, he argued that reports, statistics and policies don’t matter if you don’t have a passionate, effective teacher in the classroom. His charter schools serve a diverse, almost 100% low-income student population. When he gets a new sixth-grader he can’t teach them civics right away – he has to teach them how to read.

More interestingly, he asserted that you must first create the disposition in kids to learn civics. He talked about taking his kids out to help sign up voters with hats that say “we can’t vote, but YOU can,” an activity that clearly gets his kids fired up and wishing they were able to vote. He talked about showing kids how they could be involved in the civic process even without the ability to vote. I really enjoyed his short remarks – he was one of the speakers I would most enjoy seeing again.

One of the more interesting moments of the 2 hour session was also the most fleeting. Peter Levine, Director of CIRCLE and Research Director of Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University spoke briefly about his work on civics education. He clearly is up to his elbows in policy work. He opened his remarks with a thrown-away statement that he’s not sure at all that students don’t KNOW civics …implying that his reading of the data was different and somewhat controversial. But he didn’t elaborate!!! Tease. He did go on to agree with Seth Andrew that creating a disposition in learners to get engaged in civics was of utmost importance. But I am left wanting more. Much more.

The question and discussion period was short. There was a pointed question about the general white guy-ness of the panel. Mr. Feith struggled with the question but Seth Andrews came out swinging again as a self-professed white guy running schools that are serving a community of color. He feels that engaging these communities, which are currently even less likely to participate in the process, is of utmost importance.

Overall, the panel could have been a bit smaller so we could hear more about the actual work happening to improve civics education in their respective areas of expertise. I definitely wanted to hear more from Mr. Levine and Mr. Andrew. But all and all a good introduction to the topic.

But perhaps like many students leaving our schools, I’m left wishing I knew more 🙂 What about you? Do we have any government or U.S. History teachers among my readers? Share your stories! How do you inspire your students to get engaged in the civic process?

PS. I do hope I caught all the spelling errors in this post. I have discovered that while my new tablet does many things – it does NOT do spell check. And neither do the mobile versions of gmail, WordPress, or my document editing software. Sigh. 🙂 But I wanted to get this out to you and I am not at my home office today. Hope to see some of you at the regional Educause this afternoon in Baltimore!

One response to “The Case for Civic Education

  1. Pingback: Civics Education in (Very Exciting) Practice | Do You #EDU?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s