It’s Time for a Ceasefire in the Civics Wars

Finn: The country needs some shared understanding of what it means to be an American and what’s changed — and hasn’t — over these several centuries.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74

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This is the first part of a two-part essay on the need to reengage with civics education in the United States. Read the second part right here.

How about a ceasefire in the civics wars? Possibly even a peace treaty? This could turn out to be easier to achieve than pausing the conflict in Gaza (or Kashmir or Sudan).

The world’s big fights generally arise from opposed interests and disputes over fundamentals, and looking from afar at American civics education, one might think the same: hopeless divisions over what should happen in classrooms, textbooks and assessments. Should it focus on “how government works” or “what can I do to change things?” Is this subject about knowledge or action, information or attitudes, facts or dispositions? Rights or obligations?

Yet, unlike disputes that pit country against country and terrorist against nation state, much of the civics conflict is unnecessary, driven more by cultural combatants and politicians than by vast divides among parents and citizens regarding what schools should teach and children should learn. If those who inflame these debates would hold their fire, cool curricular heads — there are plenty around — could successfully build on the latent accord among parents and taxpayers who are the consumers of civics education. 

The evidence has been rolling in for years.

The University of Southern California’s Dornsife Center, for example, surveyed 1,500 K-12 parents in 2021 and reported that respondents, “across political parties feel it is important or very important for students to learn about how the U.S. system of government works (85%), requirements for voting (79%), the U.S.’s leadership role in the world (73%), the federal government’s influence over state and local affairs (72%), how students can get involved in local government or politics (71%), benefits and challenges of social programs like Medicare and Social Security (64%) and contributions of historical figures who are women (74%) and racial/ethnic minorities (71%).”

A year later, the Jack Miller Center, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that focuses on civics and history, surveyed parents of elementary and secondary school students and found that “89% agree that a civic education about our nation’s founding principles is ‘very important.’ ” This semi-consensus also extends to history class: “Over 92% of parents believe that the achievements of key historical figures should be taught even if their views do not align with modern values — cutting against the narrative that America is firmly divided on how to teach students about the founders and the country’s history.”

As is clear from Dornsife’s percentages, there isn’t total consensus, just widespread agreement on fundamentals. Get into hot topics like gender, abortion and racism, and plenty of Americans want their kids’ schools to convey a one-sided view or avoid the issue altogether. Yet nearly everyone wants students to learn how to analyze issues, to understand why people argue about them and how a democratic republic attempts to navigate them. Nearly everyone wants kids to understand those mechanisms — why the United States has the kind of government it does, where it came from, how it works and the principles that drive it. And everyone, I’m pretty sure, wants their children to grow up to be good citizens.

The hard part — even after professional warriors drop their weapons — is turning that latent consensus into concrete standards, curricula and pedagogy. As Frederick Hess and Matthew Rice noted in 2020, after leading a series of bipartisan discussions at the American Enterprise Institute, there is “widespread agreement on many … of the goals of civics education” but “little agreement on how to get there.”

To that end, several recent initiatives have revisited what should be taught. Probably the two best known are the Educating for American Democracy roadmap, launched — with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities — by iCivics with a broad-based group of academics and K-12 practitioners, and “American Birthright,” a set of “model K-12 social studies standards” produced by the Civics Alliance convened by the National Association of Scholars

The roadmap claims to offer “a vision for the integration of history and civic education throughout grades K-12.” This 40-page document abounds with questions that students should grapple with, not things they should know. (“What can we learn from historical leaders even when we disagree with their actions and values?” “What fundamental sources and texts in American constitutionalism and history do you invoke to help you understand current events? What gives those sources credibility and authority?”) It’s squarely on the inquiry side of the curriculum — not a list of people, events and structures — which is why it’s thought by many to represent the progressive side of the civics debate. Yet the questions it poses can’t be answered very well unless one also knows stuff, so it furnishes a framework on which to hang a thorough and ambitious curriculum. That is, provided someone adds the content that teachers and their students will need.

Content is what “American Birthright” is all about. Its 115 pages also offer a framework — up to a point. They abound in names, events and dates, which is why these model standards are widely viewed as coming from the traditional side. The document also poses explanatory and discussion challenges but tends to frame them as simplified admonitions about big, complicated topics: “Explain why free people form governments to defend their liberty.” “Describe how citizens demonstrate civility, cooperation, self-reliance, volunteerism and other civic virtues.” Those are obviously important things to do, but really hard unless one has already acquired roadmap-style analytic skills as well as factual knowledge.

In my view, an amalgam of the best of the roadmap and “American Birthright” would make for an awesome social studies plan, albeit one that would occupy far more school time than is typically allotted to these subjects. Such a blend would also take advantage of the latent consensus about what kids should learn.

Another approach is to build, as Arizona State University has done, on the test that immigrants must pass in order to become U.S. citizens. Administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, it consists of 100 knowledge-centered questions about history and civics. (“What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?” “Why do some states have more representatives than other states?” “Before he was president, Eisenhower was a general. What war was he in?”) Those taking it face only 10 questions — but since nobody knows which 10 they’ll get, preparing for the test means learning the answers to all 100. 

Knowing those things is just a start on real citizenship, but not a bad threshold to ask people to cross. And the university team has amplified it into the beginnings of actual curriculum by adding original sources, study guides, teacher materials and other supplements meant to “exceed the USCIS test in helping students learn not just the facts tested but [also] the underlying concepts, ideas and events.”

Nobody expects civics classes in Dallas to be identical to civics in Seattle. There’s no reason to expect matched curricula or teaching styles across a vast nation with a decentralized K-12 system governed almost entirely by states and communities. Yet the country needs some shared understanding of what it means to be an American and what’s changed — and hasn’t — over these several centuries. That’s why a ceasefire is necessary as well as feasible.

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