Why Civics Education Can’t

It would be nice. It sounds logical. But pumping state standards full of more civics-education requirements won’t produce a more civil society. It can’t. As a recent report reveals, most civics education classes in practice are limited to the same old outlines of government checks and balances, calculated to turn students into nappers, not active citizens.

brookings citizenship

More talk than action…

Not that we don’t want civics education to work. As pundits continue to repeat, Americans in general could use more knowledge about government and about citizen rights and responsibilities. As one writer opined,

A functioning democracy depends on an informed citizenry, including baseline knowledge of societal laws and institutions. Bafflingly, many schools no longer teach children how our government works, and what basic rights Americans are guaranteed.

And it’s not that school leaders haven’t tried. Many states have instituted new curricular rules about civics classes. A new law in Washington state, for example, drew praise from the editors of the Seattle Times. By requiring more time in civics class, the editors celebrated, the new law was

positive news for our democracy. Students who enter adulthood understanding government and their role as citizens are better equipped to participate in elections and hold officials accountable.

I hate to be a sourpuss, but I have to disagree. Not that educated adults aren’t a good thing. Rather, I disagree that mere standards and curriculum changes are enough to do the trick. As I found in the research for my book about the history of American educational conservatism, there is good reason why the centuries-old dreams of civics educators have never really come to fruition.

In a nutshell, civics education can’t work because Americans can’t agree what it is supposed to do. As a recent Brookings report highlighted, schools are very spotty when it comes to delivering the goals of civics education.

If high-quality classroom-based education in civics means anything, it should tend to include some basics. As the Brookings folks put it, there are ten goals:

  1. Classroom instruction in civics, government, history, law, economics, and geography

  2. Discussion of current events

  3. Service learning

  4. Extracurricular activities

  5. Student participation in school governance

  6. Simulations of democratic processes and procedures

  7. News media literacy

  8. Action civics

  9. Social-emotional learning (SEL)

  10. School climate reform

Unfortunately, most civics education is limited to classroom discussions and stale memorization of schoolhouse-rock-level government info.

As the Brookings report found (emphasis added by me),

the most common practices are classroom instruction, knowledge building, and discussion-based activities. These are far more common than participatory elements of learning or community engagement. . . . The lack of participatory elements of learning in state accountability frameworks highlights a void in civics education, as experts indicate that a high-quality civics education is incomplete without teaching students what civic participation looks like in practice, and how citizens can engage in their communities.

In short, most civics classes aren’t able to do the most important parts of real civics education. They aren’t able to engage students in projects that students find meaningful and have an actual impact on public life.

Why not? Ask any teacher. From sex-ed to creationism, any topic that carries the scantiest whiff of controversy is anathema in most schools. Students often care a lot about social issues, but their teachers are hamstrung when it comes to helping students get politically active.

Imagine it: What if a student group decided that their civics project would be a protest against a local abortion provider? Or if students wanted to march in a gay-pride parade? Such activism should be the goal of all civics education, but it is the rare teacher and the rare principal who is willing to take the inevitable heat.

Most schools are caught in a bind. On one hand, they are called on to teach students their duties as active citizens. On the other, if students engage in activism that members of the public disagree with, schools and teachers will inevitably be attacked for it.

Would you want YOUR tax dollars to teach kids to actively oppose a cause you agree with? It’s easy to support civics education in the abstract, but when it comes right down to it, the most we can really agree to is a bland, passive sort of civics information.

Leave a comment


  1. kwolicki

     /  August 14, 2018

    True story: Seeing interest but a lack of time among the teachers in the 4th-5th grade school, the library paraprofessional and I (the librarian) decided to run a mock election in 2016. I decided to focus on the idea of the responsibility to vote, partially because so few students seemed to know their addresses (really!). I made a voter registration form based on our state miter voter form, revised it with input from the vice principal. Great lesson! We vote! Halfway through Election Day, the principal expresses DEEP SHOCK that we had students vote for THE ACTUAL CANDIDATES. She felt this was so politically sensitive, it was inappropriate for 9-11 year olds to vote for Clinton or Trump. She refused to let us announce the results at the end of the school day.

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