America’s kids need better civics education. Why do we keep tearing it down?
There are two ways to gauge how little Americans know about our own democracy. One is to pore over the numbers, like the annual surveys of citizens by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, which this fall found that only 47% of U.S. adults could name all three branches of government, a decline from recent years.
Or there’s the fun way, like watching the videos from Daily Show comedian Jordan Klepper who’s created a niche for himself through his chats with Trump voters outside the 45th president’s frequent rallies, in which, for example, a man in an Abraham Lincoln costume insisted “we don’t currently have a legitimate president.” Or follow public meetings on Twitter like the recent showdown in Maricopa County, Arizona, where a supporter of defeated gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake told supervisors their alleged “interference in an election is a capital offense.”
OK, Donald Trump famously claimed en route to the presidency in 2016 that “I love the poorly educated,” so it’s not surprising you’d find folks who struggled to pass eighth-grade social studies at a MAGA event. But the reality is that civic education for all Americans has been in a long period of steady decline since the 1990s, when education gurus stressed the need to catch up in subjects like math and reading. Today, only seven states require even a full year of civics classes to graduate high school — and it shows.
It can’t be a coincidence that these lean years for civics and its broader classroom cousin, social studies, have coincided with the rise of political disinformation, with a growing public acceptance of conspiracy theories (and much more wackadoodle ones, like QAnon), with distrust in the political system that has led millions to embrace the Big Lie of non-existent election fraud, and with U.S. denial of climate change on a level that exists in few other places.
You’d think the groups like Penn’s Annenberg Center that advocate for more — and better — civics classes for America’s schoolkids would be having a moment right now. Instead, they face stronger headwinds than ever. It’s not just that some of the traditional barriers — the notion that studying history or how the government works aren’t career-oriented or practical — are still in place. But social studies curricula have now also been politicized across large swaths of the United States, with bitter fights over whether anti-racism education is too “woke,” and whether learning instead should focus on narrowly defined “patriotism” and American exceptionalism.
On top of all that, the race to make up for lost classroom time during the worst of the pandemic has pushed the revival of U.S. civics education to the back burner. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the longtime director of the Annenberg Center, told me, “We’ve had a couple of years now in which students have fallen behind in some areas that are very important for development into functional adulthood. So we’ve increased the stress on teachers. We’ve increased the stress on schools at the time we’ve also got real stress on democratic institutions.”
» READ MORE: America gave up on truly educating all its kids. Then Jan. 6 happened. Coincidence? | Will Bunch
Locally, the debate over the future of social-studies education flared in the Pennridge School District in Philadelphia’s northern exurbs, a community that has been riven in the last couple years by debates over issues like LGBTQ pride flags in the classroom and diversity education. But board members who voted 5-4 this week to reduce the number of social studies credits needed for high-school graduation from four — standard in most area districts — to three claimed the move wasn’t political. They intended to give students more flexibility to take college-prep classes, and to add a requirement for a personal finance course, giving teens a practical skill.
Pennridge’s downgrading of social studies appeared to be in line with the pre-pandemic and pre-Trump-era trends of prioritizing science and technology over other subjects. But this move generated widespread opposition from teachers and students in the Bucks County district — showing how the fight over what kids ought to be learning is becoming a front-burner issue in the 2020s.
“I was kind of appalled by the fact that if we are taking two years to learn about American history and not anything else — America is not the only place in the world,” a 16-year-old junior, Keira Ruch, told The Inquirer, voicing concern about a plan to slash world history (later modified by the Pennridge board). Still, the worries about how much students learn about both the wider world, America’s place in it, and the key themes of U.S history are grounded in a nationwide fight that has exploded since 2020′s George Floyd protests.
In regions with GOP-dominated legislatures or education boards, the fight isn’t over reducing social studies but radically changing it, to stress a conservative definition of “patriotism” while eliminating lessons about the role of racism or hot-button history topics like slavery and the fight for LGBTQ rights.
In Texas, a plan to modernize the social studies curriculum — such as a 2nd-grade curriculum on the Juneteenth holiday which included a book describing Floyd’s 2020 murder — was put on hold for three years under pressure from a caucus of right-wing lawmakers. In Michigan, Republican legislators have been pushing an overhaul of social studies standards that would yank references to gay rights, Roe v. Wade, climate change, and “core democratic values.” In Florida, an overhaul of civics education demanded by Gov. Ron DeSantis and GOP lawmakers and crafted with help from ultra-conservative Hillsdale College puts emphasis on “American exceptionalism” and downplays exercises like mock elections meant to promote future voter participation.
The right-wing pushback about what kids learn about American history and government — sparked by fears that Black Lives Matters marches or widespread Gen Z support for LGBTQ rights are driven by what kids now learn in school — is generating a classroom climate of fear that arguably matters even more than what’s on the law books.
New Hampshire middle school social studies teacher Valerie Wolfson, in a CNN op-ed last month describing the impact of a state law clamping down on the teaching of “divisive concepts,” wrote that “a colleague who teaches in a nearby school district was told that if she openly said slavery was a ‘bad practice,’ she must make it clear to her students that she is expressing an ‘opinion.’ It’s an experience other teachers in my state have spoken about as well.”
Penn’s Jamieson expressed concern to me that the reduced time in the classroom for the best practices of teaching civics — participation in projects like mock or school elections or volunteering on real-world campaigns that teach the value of actively taking part in democracy — will come back to haunt America’s politics of the future. “The best way to get students to understand how a system of government works is to let them engage in a system of government — that’s time intensive,” she said. Jamieson noted an increase in voter turnout in recent U.S. elections has been motivated more by fear of the opposing party than by a healthy marketplace of competing ideologies.
My feeling is that generals are always fighting either the last war, or the wrong war, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing here. The post-World War-II consensus that a well-rounded liberal education, including social sciences and the humanities such as literature, would produce better citizens has been swamped by careerism, an obsession with rote test scores, and increasingly bad politics.
We need to get that ideal back. Our kids have computers and now, for better or worse, AI that can write their term papers — but what they really need is a focus on critical thinking.
An America in which more than 40% of citizens don’t believe that President Biden was legitimately elected president in 2020 is in dire need of an intervention, and there’s no better place for that than the classroom. The teachers, parents, and kids of Pennridge who just battled their school board unsuccessfully were onto something. America needs better social studies education and students need more of it, not less.
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