Tuesday, January 24th, 2012
“Unlike traditional civic education, civic learning and democratic engagement 2.0 is more ambitious and participatory than in the past. To paraphrase Justice O’Connor, the new generation of civic education initiatives move beyond your ‘grandmother’s civics’ to what has been labeled ‘action civics.’”
–Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, January 10, 2012
[T]here is a problem in civics education, a sort of dividing line, about which there is far less agreement across society. On one side, we find an emphasis on infusing kids with basic knowledge about government, an understanding of the merits (as well as the shortcomings) of American democracy, and a sense of what can still be called patriotism: the belief that this country and its values need to be defended. (Stanford’s Bill Damon does a terrific job of elaborating on this viewpoint in his recent book, Failing Liberty 101.)
On the other side, we find much greater emphasis on civic participation and activism, on voluntarism and “service learning,” and on what is often termed “collective decision making” (or problem solving) and “democratic engagement,” which often boils down into the communitarian view that issues facing society are best dealt with through group action, by people joining hands and working together rather than through the political process.
Finn is not alone with his concerns: as we showed in last year’s Contested Curriculum: How Teachers and Citizens View Civics Education, many citizens are “reluctant to recommend that high schools promote civic behaviors like community service and raising money for causes, believing instead that teaching facts and concepts should take priority.”
Peter Levine responds by noting that “the frightening declines (i.e., changes over time) do not involve young people’s political knowledge, but rather their actual experience participating in voluntary groups and deliberating with others who hold different views. Test scores in civics are flat; the number of credits earned in social studies has risen; but membership in groups, attendance at meetings, and discussion of issues have fallen badly.”
The whole exchange is worth reading. We would also note that our recent report deals with many of these themes by showcasing the diversity of civic education practices in charter schools–which is especially relevant now since yesterday kicked-off the start of National School Choice Week. (Check out Reason’s video on the kick-off celebration in New Orleans, above.)