The Role of Civics Education in our Democratic Republic

Earlier this month in her Letters from an American newsletter, History Professor Heather Cox Richardson discussed the letter from 37 Republicans to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, accusing him of trying to advance a “politicized and divisive agenda” in the teaching of American history. She called this “a full embrace of the latest Republican attempt to turn teaching history into a culture war.”

The back story: Last April the Department of Education sought public comments on proposed grants with two priorities for the American History and Civics Education programs: to promote “information literacy skills” that will help students “meaningfully participate in our democracy and distinguish fact from misinformation” and to “incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning” (Educating for American Democracy). Republicans objected to the latter. It’s worth noting that just 24 percent of U.S. students were proficient in civics in 2018, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Nations Report Card).

The Department report, Educating for American Democracy, does not attempt to create a national curriculum. Instead, it offers seven themes and six pedagogical principles. It argues that Civics education has been neglected in this country, in part because of “dysfunctional controversy about its content.” It asserts that, “Despite our country’s polarization, we need a shared focus on achieving excellence in civic and history education for all learners. We propose an answer to questions about what is most important to teach in American history and civics, how to teach it, and above all, why. Our framework is flexible and provides significant room for differences of emphasis and diverse experiments with implementation. We celebrate that anticipated diversity of approach. Yet all are called to participate in a shared endeavor to achieve excellence in history and civic education and in so doing, to secure our civic strength.”

In a May 15 Atlantic article entitled “Can Civics Save America?”, George Packer describes the origin of the report: “in 2019, a group of scholars and educators began an ambitious effort to lay out a vision for how American children in the 21st century should learn about their multi-everything, relentlessly divided democracy. The project was started by Danielle Allen, the Harvard classicist, and Louise Dubé, who leads a Massachusetts education outfit called iCivics. They brought in, among others, Carrese of Arizona State, ‘to lend more of a conservative perspective,’ Dubé told me. ‘It’s been a very deliberate effort to negotiate across a very wide diversity of political views.’”

This offers an antithesis to former President Trump’s hand-picked commission inside the Department of Education charged with promoting “patriotic education” in the nation’s schools, national parks, and museum, on November 2, 2020, just before the election.

That commission released The 1776 Report, written not by historians but by right-wing activists and politicians, just two days before Trump left office, claiming that no other nation had worked harder or done more to bring to life “the universal truths of equality, liberty, justice, and government by consent.” I cannot reconcile that claim with the revelations of last year and the social unrest over racial and social injustice. President Biden has dissolved the commission that wrote the report and taken it off the website, but the fight continues.

Like Richardson, Packer details an assault from the right. “’The pro-Trump outlet American Greatness called the report ‘a Trojan horse for woke education.’ National Review, the Federalist Society, and the Heritage Foundation all warned of a conspiracy to impose a national left-wing agenda on American schoolchildren. In a barrage of polemics by the writer Stanley Kurtz, National Review zeroed in on the term action civics, described in the report as ‘learning by direct engagement with a democratic system and institutions, and reflection on impact’—in short, activism.’

Richardson warns us that Republican legislators in five states filed nearly identical legislation to cut funding for any school or college that uses the school curriculum based on the 1619 Project produced by the Pulitzer Center, which aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’. Republican governors continue to push for “patriotic education.” Many oppose both the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory, a movement “started by legal scholars as a way to examine how laws and systems uphold and perpetuate inequality for traditionally marginalized groups” (Time).

Clearly the teaching of Civics in American public schools is at a crossroads. Those who would continue to deny the systemic racism and inequality in our country oppose any teaching that acknowledges those realities. Within 25 years, however, the United States will no longer have a white majority (Brookings), increasing even more the need for a critical and balanced view. The politicization of civics hurts all of us. “This is straight down the middle, classic civic education,” said Shawn Healy, senior director for policy and advocacy at iCivics, a group that provides educational material on civics and advocates for civics education. “This is something that should bring us together, not tear us apart” (Washington Post). We need to support this effort. We cannot afford to succumb to a Republican whitewash if our republic is to thrive.